“It never got this hot in Brooklyn. It's like Africa hot. Tarzan couldn't take this kind of hot." - Matthew Broderick, “Biloxi Blues,” 1988
“I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I (need to) know that?"
--Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), "The Bourne Identity," 2002
Day One Hundred and Twenty One October 16th
Teri and Adele are out at the crack of dawn. Vince and I roll over and get out of bed closer to 8a, much more our style. We wander down to the buffet, have breakfast and pass the time discussing various episodes of the Backyardagins.
By 11a Teri and Adele are back, our bags are packed and we are heading out back towards Amman with a stop planned to swim/float in the Dead Sea. One of the things on Dad’s list of trip highlights.
It is just one of those travel days. We drive on the Kings Highway, an ancient travel route running up and down Jordan. The road is two lanes wide, sort of, and winds through a number of small towns. The signs are impossible to decipher making it hard to follow the route in places. Getting lost on small side roads is not recommended. It feels less welcoming out here.
We search for the crossroad heading towards the Dead Sea but cannot seem to find it. An hour or so in the drive feels fairly far off the beaten path, not many fellow tourists around, and the towns seem a bit rough and tumble for our liking (meaning no place to stop for lunch), so we end up heading back to the main highway and calling it a day. No Dead Sea for Dad. I guess it is true that it’s best to leave something on the table as a reason to come back.
Four hours later we arrive once again at the Four Seasons for our final night in Amman. Now that we are “regulars” we get a much nicer room with a little more space. Everyone is ready for some swim time so we head down and order dinner by the pool. Adele is swimming really well, doing alternate side breathing and more laps than Dad. Vince has also come along way, leaving the sides and bobbing up and down on his own.
At days end we Skype back to the States and then fall off into a much-needed sleep. It has been quite a week here in Jordan.
Post script on Jordan: This is an interesting country and we loved it. We always felt safe but we were constantly on edge. You really need to look at the glass as being half full. If you look at it the other way you may never leave your hotel.
The sights and history are staggering, some of the best we have seen thus far. The people are wonderful to children, giving them gifts and engaging them at all times. It’s funny, we spent almost three months in Europe and no one spoke to our kids. As soon as we hit Turkey and now Jordan we find that the people here worship them. We are constantly told how beautiful our family is, how wonderful the kids are and how much people love to engage us. Folks actually cross the street to get a closer look and snap a photo.
On the half empty side the poverty is very intense. People live in some of the worst conditions we have seen to date. True, they may not know any other way of life, but poverty is still poverty no matter how you slice it. Water and sewage are often a mystery. Camels, sheep, goats and chicken living amongst people are common.
Women are subservient to men. Most are fully covered at all times. People often address Teri to do things and then me for approval. It’s as if the men make all decisions and the women must do all follow up, tasks and chores. It is apparent and uncomfortable.
Mosques are everywhere. Not just in the town center like the churches in other parts of the world. Here, the mosque is integrated into the fabric of daily life. I bet the call to prayer can be heard from any point in the land. People here pray all the time and almost everyone has a set of prayer beads in hand. Islam is front and center and it clearly guides everything.
We want to come back and go north up to Jerash, Umm Qays on the Syrian boarder and the Dead Sea. If anyone wants in, lets us know…
Day One Hundred and Twenty Two October 17th
Nothing prepared us for this.
We are up for one last swim before take off. We check out around 10a and head over to the airport to catch a flight to Cairo, Egypt. The cab driver makes the forty-five minute trip in twenty minutes. I am glad Allah is watching over his shoulder (and ours as well).
The flight is on Egypt Air, a Star Alliance member so we get frequent flyer miles with United. I mean how bad could it be? The plane is so old that they still have ashtrays in the seats. This is never a good sign. When we take off part of the overhead compartment falls on top of Teri and kids. No kidding, the part that holds the oxygen canisters in case of emergency actually falls in to their laps, a huge panel falls from the ceiling and dangles by wires swinging overhead. No one seems concerned.
They kids are freaked out.
They manage to move us to new seats at the very back of the plane probably just so we can feel the full brunt of the horrible landing. The pilot comes in way to fast, bounces and barely breaks in time.
En route I overhear the following:
Lady from Chicago: “Why can’t you just all be friends?”
Man sitting next to her: “These are our lives.”
Lady from Chicago: “It is so sad all the killing and fighting.”
Man sitting next to her: “There is to be no peace.”
Lady from Chicago: “But what about all those people in the hotels?”
Man sitting next to her: no response, her question speaks volumes about her perspective, I am glad he is not armed.
Welcome to Egypt.
Thinking that we were being incredible efficient we spent every last JD at the Amman airport to avoid the currency exchange tariff. Unfortunately, we forgot about the cost of the Visas to actually enter Egypt. Fortunately, they have one ATM at the Visa Entry place. Unfortunately, BOA will not agree to give us any money because my card is not supposed to be in Egypt. Apparently it is supposed to be back in Los Angeles. Not good.
We rummage through our bags to find $45 USD. In the end we need to raid Adele’s secret supply of Save the Wolves money to pay our tab. It is a collection of $10 bills from each country we have been to. Luckily we only need the bill from the States but she starts crying uncontrollably none-the-less and Vince is now lying in the middle of the floor babbling randomly. Chaos.
It gets worse. When we get through baggage and customs we find our driver waiting with a sign. This is good. He then passes us off to another guy that will actually drive us to the hotel, not so good. The car is actually a small van, falling apart, sort of air conditioned, cramped and crowded. We all look very concerned.
The driver is very friendly or at least he sounds friendly as he goes on and on in Arabic about the things that pass by. It is impossible to focus. Cairo is insane.
There are people everywhere. I had no idea what to expect with a population of twenty five million but it certainly was not this. You can’t believe how many people there are. They drive six lanes across on a four lane highway. The side streets are worse. There are no lanes, rules or reason. There are people walking between cars, standing around in the middle of traffic, selling stuff, getting on and off buses so crowded they hang from window and doors. There is little difference between street and curb. A herd of goats passes by.
Trash is a natural part of the landscape. There are piles of stuff everywhere. Actually, everything is everywhere, without boundaries. There are no rules and little order. I assume some of it is trash but it is often impossible to separate garbage from storage. It is so filthy and dusty I can’t describe it.
The side streets off our main road are all dirt. There are open fire pits, people cooking and washing and playing and sitting and living all in the dirt and mud on side streets in the middle of the city. It is endless: going out in every direction as far as the eye can see.
The dust gets you before the air pollution. It is so dusty that everything has a light layer of dirt. You can see fingerprints on everything. Your lungs feel heavy. The car exhaust is overpowering. The air pollution is acute. It is a radical environment. Lights appear with glow rings around them from the haze. The heat holds all of it close to the ground. My eyes are tearing. I am actually afraid for our health.
It takes a lot to rattle us. This shakes us violently. It is deeply disturbing in everyway.
The hotel security is cranked up. They have gates, metal detectors, guards, guns and ammunition. The difference between the hotel and the surrounding area is severe. The contrast is so extreme it does not register: you can’t fully understand it.
We have two rooms on the fourth floor with views of the Grand Pyramid. Yes, we do see the pyramids on the way in but the drive is so overwhelming that none of us really notice. It is hard to focus.
Everyone is on the take here. They all come right out and demand tips. Everyone that does anything for you asks you for money. If you don’t give them enough they get mad and will not leave until you do. It’s unnerving.
The kids are in shock because the Egyptians clearly don’t care about them as much as the Jordanians or Turks. If I were in there shoes I would be totally confused. One minutes you are the main attraction, the next almost invisible. Plus, we will not let them wander more than an arms length from us without a firm and very tense call to fall back in line. There is no margin for error here.
We need to lie down. After a two-hour nap we rally, head to the pool for a late afternoon dip and then on to a quick dinner at the hotel. The hotel is crowded and it is clear that no one goes off the property here.
Did I mention its over ninety degrees?
Day One Hundred and Twenty Three October 18th
When we wake up and look out the window at the Grand Pyramid yesterday seems like a distant dream. Sure it is hot and the air is thick and heavy at 8a but the hotel is air-conditioned and the rooms are very pleasant. We wander over to our buffet breakfast and get they lay of the land.
We have one main objective here in Cairo: to see the pyramids and the Sphinx. This is the only reason we came in and why we booked our hotel so close by. The guy that brought us to our room said he would arrange a car to drive us to the park for $50 US. Just for fun we check with the front desk to see if this sounds legit only to find out that we can walk next door to the entrance. $50 US, be careful, everyone is on the take.
Vince is excited to see some more “old woodens.” It took a while to figure this one out. He is referring to “old ruins.” As soon as we leave the compound they descend on us. Within three steps a guy is trying to sell us camel rides. On the walk over another guy tells us we are going in the wrong direction and suggests we follow him down a blind alley for a private guided trip. We are reminded of the “not so goods streets.” Men follow us all the way to the entrance of the park trying to sell us something, anything. When we finally pass through the main gate the police turn them back.
Buying tickets is totally confusing. There are plenty of lines but we can’t seem to find the right one. All of them lead to nowhere. Eventually we end up with four tickets to the museum and one of the pyramids. Then the guy letting people in tells us we don’t really need a ticket for Vince and he sends us back to get a refund only to then ask for half of the refund back in the form of a tip to let us all in. Everyone here is working the system.
But none more so than the camel guys: they rig the system. I have no idea how we ended up on top of camels posing for pictures. It started when Teri bought postcards and needed change. One of the camel guys came over to break a large bill (we should pay attention to prior lessons learned in the desert) and the next thing you know Adele and Vince are on a camel. Then somehow I end up on Adele’s camel with her and they start to lead us off on a walking tour. We politely and firmly refuse. It sounds more like panic in our voices than anything else.
They eventually let us down and demand payment. When I give them a few dollars they suggest $20US. When we try and explain that we told them we had no money they respond that we have a stack of cash in the moneybag. So they carefully watched Teri pull out the bill earlier. It is all very creepy. Eventually we get away without paying them but they are really unhappy and everyone is a bit freaked out. Including the kids. It is clear we are in a different part of the world: very unfamiliar, uncomfortable and potentially unsafe.
The pyramids are very cool. It is amazing to stand before them and look up at four thousand year old feats of engineering. It is mind boggling that such complexity was possible. We tend to think that we are on the forefront of development. I am not so sure. The more we see and experience the more I believe that we are all moving forward incrementally around the edges but that the basic human elements remain largely unchanged.
The most significant development in my mind seems to be the advent of the concept of a single god: a monolithic belief structure. I am still struggling to work through an understanding of the big three (the Jews, Christians and Muslims) and how they all interrelate. Wait until we get to Asia when the big three expands to the big five (The Hindus and the Buddhists) and the paradigm shifts yet again.
The rest of it is pretty much divided into the ebb and flow of the “haves” and the “have not’s.” Those that “have” rule, those that don’t, eventually try to take it away from them. Outside of that, people just go about their business: Cairo, the Pyramids, Amman, Petra, Istanbul, Ephesus, Rome, Pompeii, Oslo, Eidfyord, Paris, Versailles, London, Stonehenge, New York, Mesa Verde. The day to day is all the same. We all wake up and put our flip flops on one foot at a time.
It must be the heat: there is much to think about standing at the base of the Grand Pyramid.
The Egyptians had it going on. All of this splendor was for dead people, and as they say, “it is good to be king.” We have tickets to go into pyramid number two and visit one of the king’s tombs. At first it appears we have the wrong tickets but after some discussion we manage to talk our way in. When you enter the tiny door and descend into the hot, stuffy passageway that gets smaller and smaller the deeper you go, the claustrophobia intensifies, though not if you are four or eight.
Vince is sprinting down the chute and Adele is close behind. First we go down, then up, then over, then around, then up again, then back down a bit, we veer to one side, then the other and then finally we arrive. It is a big empty chamber. All of the stuff that was in here has been removed and placed in museums so we end up standing in an empty room somewhere in the middle of the pyramid. It’s kind of weird in a way. You sort of wish they put some fake stuff in just so you can get the sense of arriving somewhere. We stay for a second or two then scramble back out. The air is so thick we are dizzy. I now understand the true meaning of “a light at the end of a tunnel.”
With the temperature rising we push on to the Sphinx. Yes, the big cat is still standing. Reports of near total decay due to air pollution are pre-mature. Its true the nose has crumbled a bit, but that’s to be expected after four thousand years of standing around in the desert heat. My whole body is crumbling and we have been here less than twenty-four hours.
On the way back up the hill we tuck in behind a large family. This is a good thing as they provide some shelter from the hawkers. Two sets of sisters fall in next to Adele and Teri and cautiously engage. It turns out they are early teens and one speaks a few words in English. Whenever they reach a level of understanding with Teri and Adele they fall back and start to giggle. It is great fun.
The walk back to the hotel is much the same as the one heading out. People are trying to sell us something at every turn. When we do walk through the gates of the hotel it is clear we will not be venturing out again today. Instead we head down to the pool and order lunch. We lounge around for a few hours before I get the wacky idea to head off the premises and try and buy some snacks and Coke Lights. It must be the heat.
Crossing the street in Cairo is a full contact sport. The “grocery store” that the hotel recommends is in the Mobil station across the main street. Food and gas makes some sense I suppose, at least it is in the public eye.
It all sounds easy enough in theory. In practice the cars don’t stop. Ever. They keep coming and coming. I try to cross on the corner but it’s impossible because the cars are all speeding up into a traffic circle to gain advantage. There is absolutely no room to negotiate. I stand watching the locals for a while but the rhythm escapes me.
Within minutes I am surrounded by guys trying to sell me something. When they realize I am trying to cross the street they try to sell me an escort across. When its apparent I am not going to buy anything they stand around watching what my next move will be. At this point I basically have nowhere to go. I can step into traffic or stand twitching on display. Such fun is Cairo.
Somehow I manage to get across. It isn’t pretty but I arrive on the other side in one piece. The Mobil station speaks volumes. There must be twenty gas pumps and each one is manned by a dedicated service person. No one is buying gas. There are five or six extra guys doing clean up and landscaping. Two more are washing windows. Four policemen stand armed and in full uniform. All of this is for an empty gas station with a Pizza Hut and a minimart. The Pizza Hut is jammed with guys in suits. It appears to be a popular upscale eatery. There are way too many people here.
The rest of the day is spent napping, eating Indian food at the hotel (Vince actually falls asleep at the table!) and trying to sort out the ups and downs of Cairo. We are all exhausted.
Day One Hundred and Twenty Four October 19th
We have a free day. Anywhere else this would be a good thing: here I am not so sure. The only other thing to see that we believe is “low risk” is the Egypt Museum. This is the place where they put all the stuff from the empty pyramid we toured yesterday. Getting there is our main concern. And getting back as well.
It turns out we can hire a taxi for the day for $50 US. Done deal. The car will take us to the museum, wait around and then take us back. No need to deal with hailing a cab. It is the only way to go.
Our driver is a really nice young guy eager to up sell us on a full day of sight seeing. We keep him on point and use the kids as an excuse to turn down the Mohammad Ali Mosque (everyone is quick to point out that this where Obama spoke when he came to Cairo), the Citadel and the open-air market. I can’t even imagine an open-air market.
While we drive I ask our driver about the vans with people hanging out the doors. He tells me they are for the regular people and it costs about $.10 to ride anywhere in the city. Our air-conditioned car runs us $50 to and from the museum. It registers that our three hours can buy a lot of $.10 rides. He goes on to say that it cost so little because everyone is so poor that they cant pay anymore so that’s what it cost. Everyone is poor here, he says, everyone.
The museum is hard to imagine. It looks like archeologists just dropped off stuff at the front door and drove off. There are statues sitting in boxes, big stones wrapped in plastic, mummies pretty much everywhere. The place is packed, there is no water, the restaurant is a thousand degrees and there is a dead cat lying in one of the statues in the garden. It is unbelievable hot, the exhaust from the tour buses is overwhelming, the line to get in and out is chaotic and the signs to the Children’s Museum lead to an empty courtyard.
On the flip side, we do get to see King Tut’s tomb. His headpiece is here as are his jewels and much of the burial chamber. It is incredible to see the wealth and power. The carvings and paintings are equally impressive. If you have time, patients and stamina this would be a great way to spend a day. We have none of the above so we head back and try to recoup.
I know this is not going to come across well and some may think we are to sheltered but it is near impossible to leave the hotel grounds here. Especially with kids. Perhaps if you come solo or as a couple you could manage it but the thought of trying to eat out or shop seems ludicrous.
Our senses are overloaded.
When we return all we can muster is a swim, a meal and an early goodnight.
Day One Hundred and Twenty Five October 20th
The good news is that we get to fly out of here today. The bad news is that the flight is a red eye leaving Cairo at 11:30p and landing in Johannesburg at 8a with a four hour layover and then a connection to Cape Town at noon tomorrow. Easily the longest travel day yet with nothing to do until flight time.
We get up and pack. The hotel decides we need to be out of our rooms at noon instead of 6p as originally panned so we have nowhere to go for about six hours. We turn towards the pool and arrive just in time for lunch.
The old quote “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” must have come from an Egyptian, probably in Cairo. We are not alone poolside. The English are here in force. Luckily the kids all congregate in a kids pool and soon enough Adele and Vince are off and away. Teri and I try and deal with the sun and heat. It is very, very, hot.
As it turns out London is a five-hour flight and many people come down for holiday. This is why they are all sitting around the pool. They are relaxing and enjoying the sunshine. When I ask if they go off the property they look at me like I am out of my mind.
The six-hour pool stretch, broken up by a great lunch at the Italian restaurant onsite, works out just fine. The kids get some quality playtime and interact with others: Teri and I can relax some and can actually have a conversation with out interruption. At sundown we sneak in and shower in the spa, pull our bags from storage and catch our transport back to the Cairo airport.
Darkness is falling when we get in the cab. Traffic is stopped. People are everywhere. We move in tiny increments. It’s painful and numbing. We don’t say much on the drive. Instead we all sit and look out the windows watching the world pass by. It’s a difficult passage. Two hours later we get out curbside and start our journey to Cape Town.
A few thoughts as we leave Cairo: I am glad we came. I don’t want to come back. Cairo has become a new benchmark for me on so many levels. These were the worst living conditions I have seen. The poverty is severe, the desperation palpable. The difference between rich and poor is frightening. There appears to be very little middle ground. There is no more room. I can’t convey just how many people there are here, what twenty five million looks like living day to day. It fascinates me that people have been living here, in this spot, pretty much forever. I try and understand but it is so foreign. I am so thankful that we have what we do.
A thought as we leave the Middle East: Never let your guard down. Maybe it is traveling with two small children but I keep coming back to Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in that I always have one eye roaming, noticing, probing, assessing the situation and weighing options. Or better yet, Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, always sitting with my back to the wall and eyes on the door. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and focus. It is not for the faint of heart.
Dim the cabin lights and take us to thirty five thousand feet…
Day One Hundred and Twenty Six October 21st
We arrive in Johannesburg at 8a. Vince fell asleep in the cab to the airport and slept straight through to landing. Adele was not far behind.
Everything is going along smoothly until we check in for the Cape Town flight. Today is actually the 21st since we flew overnight. When we booked our tickets we booked on the 20th, failing to take the overnight into account. An easy mistake: not easily fixed.
It seems our tickets were super restricted and completely non-refundable. Getting any money back is impossible. We can’t even apply them to another flight. On top of that everything thing going into Cape Town is booked for the day. Our only hope is to pay five times the current ticket price and fly in on something called Kulula Air.
We do toy with our options: an eight hundred mile drive, an over night at the airport, or simply bursting out in tears. In the end we do what you must do with two young kids, we write the check and get on the next Kulula flight.
It is actually a very nice flight, the engines stay on and they keep the livestock underneath with the luggage. The Cape Town airport is manageable and the cooler weather a welcome relief.
Did you know they drive on the wrong side of the road here? Imagine my surprise when I sat down to start the rental car from the passengers seat. This was totally unexpected. Why do they do this the British? What is wrong with them? Is it some kind of cruel joke on the rest of the world? Crazy Brits. No wonder the rental car guy kept insisting I rent an automatic. The last thing you have bandwidth for is shifting when you are struggling just to stay on the right, err correct, side of the road.
We have been talking about the Cape Town house since we booked it online via Home Exchange. We so desperately want to have a week in a normal home doing normal things. We need to learn to manage our expectations.
Let me first say that Cape Town is beautiful. Our house is in a place called Camps Bay on one of the most beautiful beaches in town. On the surface it sounds great, four bedrooms, lots of living space, a pool.
When we pull up the first thing you notice is the big ADT security sign. They are everywhere. The house across the street has an electric guard wire atop the fence. Five houses in a row are all for sale. We have one in the middle.
It is clearly a rental house. The carpets are really, really dirty. The hardwoods are filthy with a layer of dirt and grim. There is a hole in the couch fabric. The place is huge, and the bathrooms are nice enough. The kitchen has newer appliances and the pool is working but cold. It is livable but not desirable. We immediately start to try and back peddle to find something else. It is too late, we pre-committed to a minimum of five days.
Within minutes I set off the alarm and can’t figure out how to reset it. The ADT guys are there within five minutes apologizing for being late. When Marko the house manager arrives we get a better understanding about security issues. We must use the alarm. He keeps stressing this is a safe area but that we need to be careful. Always park in the garage and lock the car. Always lock the doors and windows in the house. Turn on the alarm at night. You can walk to town alone “but if someone follows you then immediately run up to any door, pound on it and cry out for help” He ends with “don’t worry, we all watch out for each other here.”
He scares us to death.
It’s late when we drive down the hill for a quick shop. We are all very weary but with the security warning from Marko we are afraid to separate and leave half of us behind at the house. Parking is difficult, the store is too small, and the labels are all foreign. It has been a long, long, day.
Hungry and tired we all head off to bed. At 3:30a Teri get s up and trips the security beam which sets off the alarm. The kids wake up and everyone freaks out. I manage to shut the thing off, get dressed and go out to deal with the ADT guys. This is not going to be the relaxing week we so much looked forward to.
Day One Hundred and Twenty Seven October 22nd
After the alarm fiasco in the middle of the night I moved into the master bedroom so I can quickly reach the upstairs alarm control panel if need be. You only have thirty seconds to call off the guards before the ADT guys start driving. The kids moved in with Teri.
At 6a the blackberry goes off so I can turn off the alarm system so everyone can get up to go to the bathroom without tripping the beams. It is no use trying to fall back to sleep, I am too exhausted.
The sun is shining which always helps bring things into focus. We are after all staying in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Cape Town with incredible ocean views at the foot of the Twelve Apostles and in the shadow of Table Mountain. And even though it is puffy coat weather we do have a pool.
Marko comes over to talk about the 3:30a alarm and give further direction on the beams. When I ask about the parking guys that appear to be everywhere he says we should give them one rand as a tip for watching our car while we are away. If they ask for more tell them “no.” He goes on to explain that this is their only form of income and it is better than having them milling about begging. For the record, one rand is worth about a $.15 – this is a very strange country.
We have breakfast, drink instant coffee, spend some time doing schoolwork and pay some bills. Around 11a or so we actually gear up and drive over the mountain into the city for lunch. The waterfront is really great. There are shops, restaurants, ice cream places, a working harbor, a crafts market and World Cup stuff everywhere. The place is crowded with all kinds of people, seemingly from all over the place. There is a group of guys singing and dancing traditional African music. It is great fun.
Bank of America refuses to believe we are in South Africa despite numerous conversations giving detailed instruction as to our whereabouts. I manage to hold up the line at the outdoor store for almost half and hour while trying to convince the BOA customer service representative in India to accept our charge in SA Rand. I can’t stand BOA.
They have an excellent aquarium since this is the meeting place of the Indian and Atlantic oceans. There are all kinds of marine life, notably the Great White shark and whales. Both are common in this neck of the woods. WE spend a few hours checking out sea creatures.
On the way back over the hill Vince lets out a big yawn and asks, “Dad, can we go home to Malibu, our real home?” Vin, we are going back to our house, the one over the hill. “No, no, no, Dad, I mean our real home. I want to go home.”
Week Seventeen - Jordan 10/27/2010
“It’s midnight at the oasis, send that camel to bed.” - Maria Muldaur 1974
Day One Hundred and Fourteen October 9th
We are up to a cold morning here in Sirince. My puffy coat comes in handy. Breakfast in this neck of the woods is a mix of olives, flat bread, jams, yogurt, strong tea and coffee. This suits us just fine.
When we warm up a bit we venture down the hill to Ephesus. For those in the know there is no need to explain, for those new to ruin hunting, this one is a grand daddy. You can put it up against the best Italy and Greece has to offer and Ephesus is almost always in the top five.
I assumed it would be bigger. When you pull up to the entrance and park just off the road in a grass field you think that maybe you are in the wrong place. There are a few tour buses but nowhere near what I expected. There is no line to get tickets and a few guides lounging about waiting for you to ask them to guide you. It is all so different than Italy.
We wander in and pickup an audio tour headset to get a better lay of the land. There are ruins everywhere. Unlike other places, there are no ropes or barriers, you can walk all over them here in Turkey. There don’t seem to be any rules about where you can and can’t go so it is sort of a free for all. There are people climbing all around wandering in an out of places. It’s great fun.
There are two highlights here: the first is the main façade of what was once a huge library from what I can make out. It is incredible. You get a true sense of what the place must have been like with the intricate carvings, statues and the massive entranceway. It is commanding from both near and far.
The second is the amphitheater. It is carved into the side of a mountain and is can seat twenty five thousand people, or a tenth of the population of the city in its prime. That is a lot of people. We have seen a number of these on the trip to date and this one takes the cake by far. It is just magnificent.
We wander for the entire morning from one end to the other. The city was strategically placed in one of the prettiest settings imaginable. It fits perfectly onto the mountainsides and rolls down the valley. With over two hundred and fifty thousand people living here at one time the ruins stretch all over the hillsides. You can see arches and walls well off into the distance, far beyond the borders of the park.
Adele: “Why ducks, why are they about birds?”
Adele: “Aqua ducks, why do they call them ducks?”
We stop in town for lunch. To our surprise today is Saturday and the weekly market is in full swing. Most of the streets are lined with stalls selling everything imaginable. There is some order to it all with likeminded vendors clustered together. The food makes you wish you could take stuff back home and cook up a feast. Everything is fresh.
We eat at a place just off the main square and have an assortment of hot and cold small plates and kabobs. Watch out for the little green peppers.
Vince has been asking for a haircut for weeks so we line him up with the local barber. It is great fun watching a young kid, probably the owner’s son learning the trade, giving Vince and trim. I can’t tell who enjoyed the experience more, the guys in the shop, Vince or us. In the end he walked away looking like a little boy again.
We get into a conversation with an American guy who is “couch surfing” his way around Europe and has ended here in Sirince for a while. He liked the place and has decided to stay a bit. Coach surfing is defined as sleeping on some elses coach. Apparently they have a website and it is some kind of organization. It all seems a bit sketchy but the travel tales are great fun. Imagine touring Russia this way.
Anyway, he introduces us to Marco who invites us in for tea. Three hours later we have our Turkish rug. Actually it is a Kurdish Bedouin rug made by Marco’s family up on the Turkish border with Iraq. This is not easy territory and he fled there some fifteen years ago and came here to start a new chapter.
He has four cats in the shop that keep the kids busy for hours while we have tea and chat. It is great fun sharing the time together. We learn about his home town, he has pictures of the tent he was born in, we learn about doing business in Turkey and what it is like to come in as an outsider. He is curious about California and our lives back home. It is the perfect way to spend the afternoon.
When we get back up the hill to our hotel we are due for an early dinner. They set us up in the main area with a roaring fire and an excellent meal. Vince runs around the grounds picking flowers while the rest of us try and stay awake. It has been a long day.
Later in the evening as I sit filling in the day’s events the music from a wedding in town pulls me in and I wander out the front door of the hotel. There is only one street and it is blocked with white plastic chairs forming a big circle around the center. The whole town is there, singing and dancing on the cobblestones. The bride and groom are in the middle of it all, swinging arm in arm with the rest of the town folk. These are people that know each other their entire lives, probably cradle to grave. It is so interesting to watch them all interact. These are the times when it is so much fun to be off the grid.
The music goes late into the night. And the call for prayers comes over the loudspeakers just as early in the morning.
Day One Hundred and Fifteen October 10th
You can’t avoid the early morning wake up calls here. If the loudspeakers don’t get you then the follow up by the roosters will, or the dogs, or maybe the tractors. It would all be so much better with a hot shower. But that’s not to be today, someone forgot to turn on the hot water switch. They actually turn the water generator on and off every day.
We have a quick breakfast and get on the road. The car says it’s 7 degrees outside, I am not sure what that is in English but it seems cold. Our drive to the airport is fast in easy. In no time we have dropped off the car, checked bags and cleared customs.
I always get nervous when I see grown men with prayer beads praying feverishly pre-flight. You just don’t see that kind of thing in the States. Here it is commonplace ad I tell you it throws you for a loop. Sure back home you may run into an old lady holding Rosary beads but here seemingly everyone has prayer beads and most are actively praying. It is a very devout practice this Islam.
We do a fly by Istanbul again and pick up an Air Jordan flight to Amman. As we stand in line to check in you can already feel a subtle change. It is mostly men, many are in either white or black gowns: the guy sitting in front of us has a headpiece on and a flowing scarf. He must be someone since almost everyone that passes by seems to know him.
It’s big plane that lands on a long runway and taxi’s to a spot out in the middle of nowhere. We all deplane and bus in from there. It is much hotter here and from the looks of things we seem to be in the middle of a desert.
We change what money we have (mostly Euros and Turkish Lira) to Jordanian Dinar so we can pay cash for the Entry Visa. Then we clear customs and try to hail a cab. It is a bit chaotic with people pulling us in all directions trying to get us to let them get us a taxi. In the end two guys manage to get one for us and become very vocal about getting at tip. I have no small change so I give them what Turkish Lira I have and a Euro. They seem totally confused but it does the trick.
As we drive to the hotel we see our first camel and Bedouin camp. Amman is all one color – sand. The buildings all look the same and blend into the hillsides. The only color variation from sand is the garbage that is everywhere. It is striking how much trash there is here.
When we pull up to the Four Seasons they stop and check our taxi for explosives. They have a guardhouse with cement barricades; one entrance lane blocked with cement cylinder shields and armed guards. To get into the building they have a metal detector and they screen our luggage.
It is all very surreal as the nice hotel employees and saying, “welcome to the Four Seasons, nice flight?” All you want to do is ask why they need to x-ray your carry on and make your kids pass though a metal detector just to check in.
It is very late by the time we are in our room and ready for bed. I say goodnight and wander downstairs to spend a few hours filling in my journal. I love hotel lobby bars. It is almost sacred ground for people watching. In this case we have a true mix of global travelers, mostly on business, some for pleasure. The bits and pieces of conversation are well worth the price of admission. In my case an $8 bottle of Perrier and a glass with ice.
There is a wedding downstairs going full tilt. The music is loud and the people are all milling about dressed to the nines. It reminds me of why security is so tight here. Just four years ago Amman was the site of the coordinated hotel bombings that killed sixty people, a good number of them at a wedding. The Four Seasons was not one of the hotels that night but that was just luck, it could easily have been, and it is a harsh reminder of where we are.
This part of the journey is going to be much, much, more than we bargained for.
Day One Hundred and Sixteen October 11th
This is a rest day. We have been going at it pretty hard since we left Italy and we all need a break so we have pulled into the Four Seasons Amman to regroup and spend the day at the pool.
Our first impression of the Four Seasons is that it is like a nice Marriot back home. Maybe. Everything is old and a bit worn. Since it is “the only game in town” by Western standard, so says pretty much everyone in the know, it clearly gets a lot of use.
The people working here are friendly enough but they all seem stressed. At breakfast the place is a disaster: tables are half set, the staff is running in all directions, no one seems happy or satisfied. Guests are getting up to set their own tables and searching for stray salt and pepper shakers: this would never happen back in the States. We muddle through and manage to find coffee and feed the kids.
By 10a we are poolside up on the roof over looking the city. It seems to spread out forever. It’s very dense with people and cars going in all directions. In the haze of the morning sun the air is thick and the streets are very loud and noisy.
There are many mosques calling out prayers around noon, just as they did in Istanbul. I am actually getting used to the sound and the rhythm of the calls. The horizon is filled with their minarets. In Europe you had the church in the middle of a village or town and the steeple rising from the center. People we called together towards a singular focal point. Here the mosques are everywhere.
We pass the entire day just hanging out in the sunshine, swimming, reading and relaxing. The break is much needed and it is a nice way to ease into the Middle East. There are helicopters buzzing by, horns and traffic sounds rising up from the roundabout below, political signs for the upcoming Parliamentary election hanging about everywhere.
Adele: “Dad, why are there so many sleigh dogs?”
Dad: “Sleigh dogs?”
Adele: “Yeah, the sleigh dogs all over Rome.”
Dad: “Stray dogs, you mean so many stray dogs.”
Adele: “Oh, I was wondering about all the sleighs.”
It is nice to spend the day sitting above it all before actually entering into the fray. By dinner we are ready to venture out so we head to Houston’s of all places to get a little taste of home. Lonely Planet says its one of the top places to go in town, actually listing it as a high end option, but when we get there we find that we are the only ones in the place. Maybe we are at the wrong one? It is all a bit odd but the food is great and it is nice to be out of the hotel for a bit. However, this is yet another reason that Lonely Planet’s days are numbered.
In the elevator we run into an American claiming to be a “diplomat” working on the peace process. It is sad I suppose that we don’t know which peace process. It could be Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Iran, really any of the countries around us. It is also strange that we are so far removed from the news of the world that we have no context for diplomatic discussions. The man looks tired and he just stands and smiles politely. Tough job working for peace here in the Middle East: must be like Sisyphus rolling a rock up the hill.
We also meet a very nice woman from Chicago who is here scouting out locations for a travel tour company. Now, this is a great gig. When I come back in life, I want this job. She used to be in finance until she made a change and hooked up with a high-end tour company serving wealthy travelers from the States going to Jordan. When asked if she likes the work she just smiles and chuckles. Apparently she does not miss finance. Lucky for us she gives an overview of the main sights here in Jordan and shares a few special spots to eat along the way.
Feeling much more relaxed we wrap the day and I head off the lobby to fill in a few more days and post some more photos on the blog.
Day One Hundred and Seventeen October 12th
Renting a car in Jordan is an adventure. First off, Thrifty Car Rental is the preferred agency for the Four Seasons. Not kidding. The nice people at the front desk call the man from Thrifty and he suddenly appears next to me, standing and waiting for me to introduce myself. I don’t know he is doing this so we stand smiling at each other for a while.
When I do finally say hello, he addresses me as “Mr. Carcano”, and lets me know that he is very pleased to be able to offer me a “nice car”, a “big car” for “let’s say seventy JD a day.” He made the number up in his head and writes it on a scratch pad from the hotel so I suggest sixty JD, which he accepts, but only because I am “Mr. Carcano from America.” I should have offered thirty.
When we get the car it is by far the worst looking rental I have ever seen. It is one big dent. It takes him twenty minutes just to mark everything that is wrong with the car on a piece of paper and then another fifteen minutes to review it all with me.
When he hands me the key it is taped together. When I put it in the ignition the key part falls off and breaks in half. I return to the front desk holding two pieces of key and ask if the Thrifty guy is legit. They insist that he is and that he must have made a mistake.
When he returns he has made “no mistake, just forgive, it is the only key, can nto find other.” Then he just stands there as if two pieces of key are normal. We look at each other again for a while until I finally suggest another car. The only other car they have is ‘much older” and “not good for a family with children”. The car can not possible be older than the five year old Mistubishi with 118K on the odometer. “Yes, yes, much older, I have a Jeep that is only six years old but no air conditioning, very good for the desert.” What about a new key? “Maybe.”
An hour later we are on the road in the “new” five year old car. The inside is actually very clean and it only makes noises when you break so all in all I would say we made out pretty good for fifty JD a day, we did get a price break for the broken key. Welcome to driving in Jordan.
There are no driving rules here. None what so ever. Go as fast as you want, stop if you feel like it, the lanes are not marked even though we are driving three, sometimes four cars abreast. I have done some pretty intense driving thus far and this absolutely the worst yet. Forget the Italians or the Turks.
Wadi Rum is at the other end of the country down by Saudi Arabia so we have a four-hour drive in the blazing desert heat. Actually, I am told this is not blazing, that in summer it is unbearable even by Jordanian standards. I cannot imagine what it is like out here.
When we do finally arrive to our “lodge” it is off road a bit and out in the middle of nowhere. We are supposed to sleep in tents, Vince is very excited about this, but the pillows are so filthy and the dust so bad we refuse. They do have a room with four beds, old worn out blankets, very dusty sheets and a light bulb. We opt for indoors. When we ask for a bathroom for Vince while we are checking in, the women suggests that we use the nearest bush. Just as well the shared bathrooms are not the cleanest.
This is the official end of Lonely Planet for us. They recommend this place as being clean and upscale. It is neither and a bit scary. To make the best of things we climb a hill and watch the sunset over the reserve. Sunset is a very special event here in the desert. Feeling a little better we go to the big tent for dinner and find a bunch of other Lonely Planet readers in the same state of shock we are. Except for the ones smoking hooka pipes: they all look like they don’t have a care in the world.
We met a very nice Australian couple that has an olive farm back home and we exchange Jordan travel plans and get a few recommendations. Dinner is a buffet of hummus, olives, chick peas, cucumber and pita bread. We make do.
The bathrooms are filthy even by our camping standards so there are no showers, just a quick wash and off to bed. In the pitch black we lay sleeping in our clothes with our jackets and extra clothes as pillows, convinced bugs are everywhere, and listening to the local mosque call out prayers. Once again strangers in a foreign land.
Day One Hundred and Eighteen October 13th
The morning call to prayer comes at 5a in total darkness. It jolts me awake, confused and disoriented. They go one for ten minutes of so then stop as suddenly as they started. I fall back to semi-sleep and an hour later we are up at first light.
Breakfast is pretty much the same as dinner the night before except we get instant Nescafe as an added bonus. It’s not half bad if you add enough sugar. The kids are starving: we are all surviving pretty much on pita bread, hummus, olives and water.
The book says to go to the Visitors Center to get a guide. This makes the man in the camp parking lot most unhappy and he keeps following us around pushing his jeep ride on us “for a good price of $35JD”. His jeep is totally open, no windows, just benches in the back without seat belts or restraints. Teri looks concerned.
When we do get away from the man in the parking lot and arrive at the Visitor’s Center we find all of the jeeps to be in the same or even worse condition. The cost is the same as the parking lot however, it turns out we support the preservation of the park by coming here, so all is not lost. We buy a two-hour desert tour ticket.
They should tell you when you but it that they time stamp the ticket starting your two hour block. Not knowing this we take our time getting over to the pick up area, buying waters and making a bathroom stop along the way. When we do get there our driver is frantically waving us down in the middle of the road. I don’t recognize him and drive on by. When I do so he looks near panicked and starts to chase down our car. I get a bit nervous when crazy men in head scarves start chasing the family in the middle of the desert so I do what any one else would do in the situation: I turn around and drive by him again going the other way. To which he counters and turns around, continuing his pursuit.
It is all so confusing since I swear to you that I have never seen this guy before and he claims we met at the check in. Somehow, by hook or by crook, he has the other half of our tour ticket. With no other options we load up into his ancient Land Cruiser and start driving at break neck speeds to make up for the lost time we spent dilly dallying.
The kids are in heaven. The parents I’m not so sure. We are flying along in the middle of the desert in the back of a jeep sitting on benches, holding on for dear life. Once we get comfortable enough that we will not fly over the sides and begin to settle into the experience we realize just how incredibly cool this all is: we hit bumps and go flying, get into deep sand and skid, stop at Lawrence of Arabia’s favorite watering hole, climb a real sand dune, pee out side and see it dry up as it hits ground, stand in the shadows of giant rock formations, see ancient carvings on the walls dating back thousands of years. This is all happening in the heat of the desert in Jordan. Honestly an adventure cannot get much better than this.
Our guide, as it turns out, is gracious and so incredibly friendly that we decide to hire “his father’s” camels for our camel ride. At first they were “his brothers” camels but now they are “his fathers.” He must have been mistaken.
When we return, I need to break a fifty. Some advice to those that may follow in our footsteps, always carry small change in the desert. Otherwise things cost exactly as much as the size of the smallest bill you have on hand (or the largest if you are foolish enough to flash it). All I have are JD 50s, about US $70. I can probably buy a camel for JD 50, maybe even a two humper.
Mistake number two after no larger bills, don’t leave you wife and kids in the back of a pick up truck sitting road side in the desert surrounded by camel hawkers. While the lady behind the counter in the shop digs through everything looking for change, Teri and the kids are surrounded and hemmed in by the crowd of young camel guys.
They all want us to hire them for a ride. At one point they are trying to pull Vince and Adele out of the car and put them on camels. It is a zoo. When I get back to the truck with our guide there are six or seven of them leaning into the truck with Teri and kids pressed against the benches trying to get some space.
Our guide immediately starts yelling and chasing them away. They push back and a great shouting match begins. About midway though the argument our guide tells us all to get in and he drives down the road only to have the hoard of others get on their camels and follow. He speeds off down a side street to try and lose them. We have no idea what is going on.
A ways down we pull in to his father’s house. This is also his house, his brother’s, mother and father’s, son’s and a host of others house. When he stops and hops out he motions us to get down and sit on the ground to wait for his father’s camels. A few minutes later the others find us and they try to move in again. He runs at them screaming, probably cursing, eventually chasing them away.
In the midst of all this our guide’s mother comes out and offers us tea. We are sitting on old cushions in the dirt under a tree drinking painfully sweet tea from dirty glasses. There are camels, chickens, old dogs, cats, trash, car parts, cardboard, old tires and god know what else scattered all around us. It is one of those times when you ask yourself, “How did I get here?”
The camels are fifteen JD for three so I give our guide a twenty and he disappears. So does the five in change. When he returns he announces he must leave and do another jeep tour so he motions for us to keep us sitting on the ground waiting for camels with his mother. When I tip him for the jeep ride, he get teary eyed, hugs me and kisses me on both cheeks, gives me Allah’s blessing and wishes us safe travels.
At long last the camels arrive. They are big and smelly and they burp and gurgle. Somehow they manage to get us all up on them and we head off for our half hour ride to nowhere. Adele has her own camel but she is still a bit traumatized from the earlier camel hawker experience so she is out of sorts a bit. Vince and I share one and have a great time discussing the merits of one verses two humps. Teri has her own as well and has great fun trying to capture it all on film without falling off. After all this prep and drama, we walk around the block and then our camels sit down and we are done. We are on them maybe fifteen minutes. But it is fifteen minutes that will last a lifetime.
Since we started at dawn we are done by noon and are up for a drive to the Dana Nature Reserve to stay at an eco lodge somewhat off the beaten track. The drive is long and hot. What was to be two hours turned into four somehow and we ended up way south down in Aqaba before taking the Dead Sea Highway back up north. It is strange to be on the Saudi boarder seeing signs to Yemen. At least we get a glimpse of the Red sea.
When we finally manage to find the turn off the Dead Sea highway we are all a bit weary. The road now winds deeper and deeper into a valley towards the base of the mountains. Living conditions are dismal. The Bedouin tents are supplemented with mud huts and make shift housing. It is hard to imagine anyone lives here, much less spends an entire lifetime. From the look of things they don’t know any other way of life though I do spot satellite dishes on most mud huts.
To check into the eco lodge we must leave our car under a make shift carport and board a broken down truck for the final half hour leg. We travel up valley on dirt roads rutted and cut deep with tracks. It is one long bounce and bump.
The drive is along an ancient seabed strewn with rocks. Over thousands of years people have tried to clear the land at various times leaving a maze of rock walls and traces of buildings and towns. Our guide tells us the larger ones are Roman and from the looks of the ancient arches it appears so. It is fascinating to see ruins in their purist form, untouched and left to crumble back into the land.
When we get to the eco lodge it is dark and lit solely by candlelight. No electricity out here save for a few lights in the kitchen and bathrooms. They apparently go through over four thousand candles a month! It gives the place a mysterious look.
Check in is confusing. There are two guys, Mohammad and Ali, at the front desk. The reference to our Mohammad Ali fails to humor them. A reference to theirs does the same. When you take them off script you get blank stares back.
Mohammad checks us in and Ali sits us down for a twenty-minute overview of the property. His combined English and Arabic leaves us all wondering what in the world is going on. The talk is a mix between a welcome / orientation, some kind of explanation of the candles and recycling program (I think) and some up selling other services offered (i.e. camel rides, guided hikes).
At one point a third guy comes in carry Vince. His name is Hussain and he introduces himself by saying, “here, we are all friends.” There is a particular stress on “here” making it clear that in other places we may not be. He is pleasant enough on the surface but underneath you can tell there is something entirely different going on. We do not feel threatened per say, since we are surrounded by and in the comfort of fellow travelers. But if we ran in Mohammad, Ali or Hussain on the street I have no doubt it would be a very different story. The place is a bit creepy that way, we feel tolerated but not comfortable.
When we finally get to our room, it is really something. We each have our own bed with mosquito netting that you pull down around you, its dark but we have two candles that give the place a warm glow.
We wander down and have dinner with the rest of the guests; they seem largely uninterested in mingling so we have our own table. It’s a vegetarian menu, delicious but sparse: pita, olives, hummus and water.
After dinner we all go up to the roof to lie on big pillows and gaze at the night sky. We have tea and make wishes on shooting stars, then, at long last, we are off to bed to read by candlelight and catch some much-needed sleep.
Day One Hundred and Nineteen October 14th
Vince and I sleep in while Teri and Adele go for a morning hike. They return around eight or so and find us fumbling around the breakfast area. We slam a few cups of tea and get ready to start the day.
The sun is up and it is clear and crisp day here in the desert. The camel guys come in around 9a and proceed to pose in front of the breakfast crowd looking for a couple of JD per photo. They have no takers so they settle in, sitting under a small bunch of trees, seeking shade. Vince promptly joins them.
He sits under the tree chatting away, pointing to the camels and picking up sticks. The camel guys have no idea what to do with him. At first they laugh and joke, then they ask us for 2JD for a photo, to which we say no, so they get a bit grouchy. We part ways and go up to finish packing.
When we come back down Vince runs outside shouting, “Hi guys, I am back!” They have no idea what to do. Eventually he warms them up and they are all sitting in a circle tossing rocks at sticks. The kid should go into sales.
We check out and they nickel and dime us in subtle ways: not enough to argue about but enough to notice. It feels good to move on.
The guy watching our car at the carport says the road to Petra over the mountains will save hours and that it is “just a few bumpy” OK for cars? “No problems.” Said with a big smile. “Just turn 2K down the road and head straight, water is at the store.”
15K later we find the turn off but there is no store and we only have half a bottle of water. How bad can it be? The pavement stops immediately. Giving us some comfort the camels appear just off the sides of the road so we are not alone out here in the middle of nowhere. It is very hot. The kids are already complaining. Some water would have been nice.
This drive is one of the most intense we have done to date. It is on a single lane dirt road, riddled with hairpin turns and thousand foot drops. At one point we pull over and email our where bouts just in case something goes wrong. If it does we may never be found.
We go up and over several peaks and valleys all in quarter time. The 50K “short cut” with an average speed of 10kph is not as “short” as we expected. Never the less, by noon we are over the hill and back down in civilization. It is nice to actually see other people again: we were getting lonely out there on the edge.
Petra is much smaller than I thought it would be. For some reason I imagined a bigger town and more infrastructure. Instead there is one main road that starts at the park entrance and ends up the hill when it hits the other main road going north/south. The guidebook only has a few recommendations for eating, all of which look pretty average. This is not a place know for fine cuisine.
Our lunch is terrible. We are all tired and hungry after the drive so the bad food is amplified by the situation. We eat as much as we can and head off to find the Marriott. Yes, that’s right, we are staying in a Marriott.
Hotels were very hard to come by and we got lucky with the Marriott. It is considered an upscale brand here in Jordan; really anything is with an American label. The guard rolls back the heavy metal gate and after a few questions lets us into the parking lot. We are the only car. It takes awhile but we finally figure out we are the only ones driving ourselves. Everyone else staying here is on a bus tour.
Marriotts are predictable the world over. They are no different here than at home except they make you pass though metal detectors and serve pita bread, olives, hummus and water for breakfast. We get the kids to the pool for a bit but it is way to hot in the midday sunshine. By late afternoon all four of us are in the cramped hotel room lounging on the two double beds. Such fun this travel thing.
Teri and Adele head out at 6:30p for an evening tour of Petra. There is much excitement as this is one of the highlights for Teri. She has been talking about Petra since day one. Vince and I have some food, play around and crash around nine.
When Teri and Adele roll in around 10p, Vince is fast asleep. They are both very excited: the candle lined walk and ceremony at the Treasury were everything they expected. (Except for a few people steaming. Leave it to the Americans to come via tour bus and sit smoking amongst the ruins.) The walk in is 1.2K and the word is that Vince will probably not make it in the stroller due to the sections of Roman pavers. Therefore, I draw the 6a walk up card and get to go in on my own. How cool is that? I set the alarm and try to sleep.
Day One Hundred and Twenty October 15th
The Petra experience is very hard to describe. It is so vast and powerful that my descriptions will be painfully inadequate. I will say upfront that if you ever get the change to come here you should take it in a heartbeat. Do not think twice, and sign up immediately, it will be a life highlight.
I get up at 6a and grab a quick breakfast at the buffet. The only other hearty souls up at this hour are doing the same thing I am. We all look kind of nerdy in our zip off pants, long sleeve REI shirts, hiking boots and assorted cameras. I leave them to the buffet and speed on over to the entrance hoping to be one of the first to arrive.
The doors open at 6a and I am in at around 6:40a. To my surprise I am all alone . Apparently most people sleep in. When you come get our to bed and come early, you will have the place to yourself.
The walk through the Siq is fascinating. It is the main entrance to the city of Petra and it runs through a winding slot canyon for 1.2K. The natural rock walls are tight and high giving the impression that you are at the bottom of a riverbed. They are smooth to the touch almost polished. All along the base of the passageway there is a trough carved into the wall to bring water into the city. Along the upper walls are looks outs and carvings tucked into the rock. They go unnoticed if you don’t look up.
You don’t really get any warning as you come upon the Treasury. You have been walking for twenty minutes or so with expectation building with each twist and turn but nothing really prepares you for the initial encounter. Suddenly you get a glimpse of something entirely different. It appears out of context and is actually carved into the rock. Somehow they carved the thing into the rock! And it is a masterpiece.
The light has not crept into the Sig when I round the corner so it is still wrapped in the dull grey light of early morning. The rock is a red and orange with subtle colors changing as the eye move up the structure. It is massive. You come into a small opening and it dominates the natural square. I have nothing to reference for comparison, not sure anything exists to do so. It makes you stop, stand and stare.
I am the only one there. It is an eerie feeling to be standing all alone in front of such significance. You feel like a visitor from some other world, almost like an intruder in some aspect. All I can think of is Angor Wat in Cambodia. This place has the same kind of mystery and inspires the same sort of reverence.
I am alone for most of the morning wandering amongst the two thousand year old ruins. It is an incredible experience. As the city unfolds before you the size and scope of the place becomes more and more apparent. It would take a good week to hike and explore the different sections. In the short time I am there I wander through the Street of Facades, the Theater, Main Promenade, the Grand Temple, the Winged Loin Temple, a well preserved set of mosaics and the Royal Tombs.
By the time I start heading back out around 9:30a the tour groups are pouring in. People are everywhere. The Siq is actually crowded with big groups of folks from all over the world. I am so thankful I got out of bed and made the early morning trip.
On the way out I stop by and pick up a tee shirt written in Arabic with picture of camels on the front. The guy tells me it is made in Jordan. When I point out the Made in Jordan label is sewn on top of a Made in Syria label he just shrugs and denies it. Then his father comes in holding a wad of bills and asks me my name. When I tell him he nods, “Steve, you are Steve Austin, very rich man, you Steve Austin, million dollar man, buy more shirts made in Jordan.” I burst out laughing.
I spend about twenty minutes talking to the two of them trading barbs and talking about women. They are arguing over which country has the best looking women. When they find out where we have been I am anointed arbitrator and tasked with making the final decision. At this point several other vendors come over and join in. After much debate over the Italians and French I suggest the Americans to break the tie and get nods of general agreement all around.
When I tell them my next stop is Cairo the old man frowns and starts cursing the Egyptians. I try to explain that we are only going in to see the pyramids but he gets so bent out of shape that he throws his hands up in frustration and moves on. I make a mental note not to bring up Egypt again in conversation.
I get back to the hotel at 10:30a. Adele is just wrapping up school and Vince is bouncing off the walls so we immediately head out to the castle of Shawbak. This turns out to be true Indiana Jones stuff. An ancient ruin set on a mountaintop with one guy taking tickets and no rules or regulations what so ever. We are all alone and have full run of the place.
It is almost to cool to be true, especially if you are eight and four years old. Vince wears his headlamp and Adele clutches her flashlight as we shine them into pitch-black spaces and around blind corners exploring secret passageways. It is dusty and dirty, hot and dry. There are old wooden planks that shift when you cross them, balanced up three stories high across different sections of wall and tower. The inner rooms have secret tunnels that go down over three hundred meters and exit well below the castle coming out somewhere outside the grounds on a lower road to town.
On the way in to the castle we meet one of the friendliest people in Abu-Ali. He is selling jewelry outside a small café by the entrance and he immediately takes a liking to Vince and Adele. Initially we discuss the potential of buying one of his necklaces, the “oldest and best one of Bedouin beads” for a mere 40JD. Over coffee the price falls and the added value grows. He showers the kids with gifts. His generosity is so genuine that it takes us off guard. He keeps bring out more and more things, all small items but ones that mean so much to the kids.
At one point he pulls out a cell phone and calls one of the guests staying in “his cave”, also American apparently staying in Shawbuk on business. He hands the phone to Teri and it turns out the guy is an archeologist from San Diego studying/working in Petra. Abu Ali is so happy that the two of us are both Americans and that he can connect us he looks like he may explode with joy.
As we finish our drinks and start to head into the castle Abu Ali notices Adele’s necklace from Wadi Rum and suggests he take it down to his cave to make the “A” prettier and more suitable for her. We are all totally confused. In the end, Abu Ali takes the necklace and tells us to meet him down at his cave at the bottom of the hill when we are done with the castle to pick it back up. How will we find it? Apparently we can’t miss it.
That is how we managed to end up sitting in a cave sipping unbelievably sweet tea and watching CNN with Abu Ali and his son MJ. The scene is surreal. We are in cave in the middle of the desert in the middle of Jordan.
MJ’s English is excellent. He is self-taught, mainly via school, television and interaction with tourists. He hands me a book, “The Cross and Crescent” and says the it is a good read, I believe implying that Christians and Muslims can get along. This is good to know when you are sitting in the cave under the Jordanian flag with it’s seven pointed Islamic star.
We spend a wonderful hour or two touring the cave and the newly built cave hotel, talking to our hosts and various others that come in and out. What ever else they had planned for the day did not seem to matter. They would have visited with us all day and far into the night is possible. We are not accustomed to this kind of behavior. Our lives back home are so structured that the thought of tossing out an afternoons activities to just visit with some one from a foreign land would never, ever cross our minds. It is not even in the realm of possibility. But here, in the cave, it seems perfectly natural. It is a healthy lesson for all of us.
When we get back to the hotel we are all exhausted. Over a quick dinner we decide that Teri and Adele should get up at 6a tomorrow morning and make the early trip into Petra to beat the crowds. So by 10p we are all fast asleep.
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we are not in Kansas any more!” – Dorothy, The Wizard for Oz 1939
Day One Hundred and Seven October 2nd
On a warm fall morning, with sun shining and the light glittering off the sea, it is near impossible to pull our selves away from Ravello. It is almost as if the gods ordered up perfection just to make the memories and impressions that much stronger. The yellow lemons dripping off trees, grape vines snaking around trellises, fresh vegetables exploding out of every nook and cranny.
Our week has ended and its time to move on. Motivating is a struggle but we do manage to get the bags packed and the kids fed. Breakfast is different today. Most of the others that have been with us this week have moved on and new people are in their place. It sort of feels like we are the last to leave a party: suddenly coming to and noticing that the others have all gone.
The two couples from Boston are still here and luckily we do find them to say goodbye. Vince is choked up about leaving them and keeps making gifts out of paper towels, trying to prolong the departure.
By ten we are all packed into Antonio’s van and headed for Naples. The drive seems to affect everyone today. I am not sure if it is the let down after such a great week, the twists and turns of the mountain roads, the anticipation of another travel day, saying goodbye to Denise, or transitioning into the next phase of the trip but by the time we climb off the coast everyone is feeling a bit car sick. We are all quiet en route.
On the other side of the mountain, back down in the shadow of Vesuvius, things are looking up again. Our first stop is the train station in Naples. It appears we have been staying on “the other side of the tracks” so to speak. The drive in is startling and the experience a heavy dose of reality.
The first thing you notice is the trash. It is everywhere, stacked high and wide. Then it starts to register that people are living amongst the piles, tucked into little pockets of space, apparently just trying to survive. It’s a far cry from Ravello. Many of the buildings look like they are abandoned until someone steps out the front door and toss's another bag of garbage into the street. It appears to be extreme poverty by European standards, by any standards, certainly some of the worse we have seen so far.
The station is in a small clearing right smack in the middle of it all with trains coming and going, oblivious to the surroundings. If you don’t wander too far on either side the place actually looks rather inviting. We say our goodbyes and then leave Denise on a platform waiting of the train to Rome. There is a heavy police presence so she’ll be fine. We need to motor to get to our next stop: SpanAir to Istanbul via Barcelona.
Yes, that’s right, via Barcelona, an hour and a half flight backwards before a three-hour flight forward. That’s what you get when you need four cheap seats out of Naples.
The travel is easy and it feels good to be back in the air. This is our first flight since landing in London way back on June 20th. From here on out the big jumps will be air travel coupled with car rentals in country to get around and see the sights.
The Barcelona airport is very impressive. It’s big, bright, clean and empty on a Saturday evening. They have a red carpet club partner we use as a home base for our two-hour lay over and plenty of food and shopping. Vince and I play cars while Adele and Teri pick up “reading material” (magazines) and wander around.
As we race our cars and banter back and forth I ask Vince about his new comment, “next time we go round the world,” as it has become a common point of discussion as of late. He explains in classic four-year-old logic that since Adele is going round the world when she is eight that next time we will go is when he is eight. Makes perfect sense to me. Adele will be twelve in four years so I am not so sure we will be able to pull here away. Plus we have the World Cup in Brazil that year, but it is something to think about.
Barcelona feels very Spanish. The people are dark and ethnic. It’s festive and comfortably casual. It makes us realize we should have stopped by Spain, I think we would have really enjoyed the experience.
At 6:45p we board the flight to Istanbul and say goodbye to Europe. Sure, some may consider Turkey part of Europe, but for me it is the gateway to and part of the Middle East. I have visions of getting off the plane to a crowded, smoke filled airport filled with dark swarthy people drinking tea. It is out of the comfort zone and part of the unknown and I can’t wait!
Much to my surprise the place is empty when we land. I mean really empty as in we are the only flight at the baggage claim and we get our visa and clear customs in less than half and hour. With the late hour we had our hotel bus pick us up so we do not have to deal with a cab. It’s a good call. The airport we land in, there are two here, is way out of town and it takes almost an hour drive to get to the Blue Hotel. The hour drive would have freaked us out in a cab.
As we drive along the lights seem to go on forever. The further we drive the more it looks the same, kind of like Queens or Brooklyn late at night, with lots of low rise buildings and blaring street lights. It is definitely lit up.
When we leave the highway and start into the older part of town more and more people are out and about. Soon they are everywhere: walking, talking, smoking and strolling. Usually arm in arm and in groups. Cars are going in all directions with absolutely no respect for lanes, lights or horns. It is basically a free for all.
When we finally pull up to the Blue Hotel, tucked in below the Blue Mosque, I am totally turned around and have lost all sense of direction. The man at the front desk gives us a warm greeting and helps steer us upstairs.
The elevators are tiny and you need to pull the door open and closed by hand. There is music rising from the street below and you can feel the beat of the city when you open the windows. It is cool and crisp and sounds exactly like you would expect it to.
We settle into room number 45 and drift off to sleep. I give you the number in case you every come to this neck of the woods. You should request it. Why you ask?
Day One Hundred and Eight October 3rd
Because the view is unbelievable! We wake up not really knowing what to expect. Coming in under a cover of darkness leaves much to the imagination and this morning it is surpassed by reality. When we open the curtains we are staring at the minarets of the Blue Mosque a glow in the early morning sunlight.
It’s about five in the morning when I first peak around the curtain. I am up because the speakerphones are blearing the first call to prayer of the day. We will soon learn that this is the first call and that it happens five times per day in all of the mosques in all the lands. It is a foreign sound, a voice, with an offbeat cadence, sort of singing. It is part of the fabric of daily life.
We pull ourselves out of bed around 9a and head down for the buffet breakfast filled with excitement and expectation. Today is our first day with our guide, Yavuz, who comes highly recommended from a friend of mine back home. We have never had a guide before and do not really know what to expect so when we find him waiting in the lobby, an hour ahead of schedule we are confused. Turns out he is always leaves home early to be sure he will be where he needs to be on time. We like him already.
Breakfast is filled with tourists. I thing Adele is right when she observes that they are “probably from a bus tour.” They are all women from either the States or England and very, very focused on shopping. The Grand Bazaar comes up often in their conversation. We eat quickly and clear out as soon as possible.
Yavuz is waiting in the lobby. He may be one of the nicest people we have met thus far on our trip. He is warm, friendly, incredible helpful, interested in our travels and the kids and so full of information that he amazes us all. And we have not even left the lobby!
When we do get up and go we wander right next door to the Blue Mosque. This is our first mosque, never having been in one before, and it is beautiful and majestic. Yavuz stops at several points along the way to explain what we are looking at and why things are the way things are. Adele hangs on every word. For instance there are places to sit and wash so the person immediately behind you can smell clean feet. There are no statues or pictures, just words and patterns, that way people will not falsely worship the statue instead of the God. This mosque is unique with six minarets apparently due to some miscommunication between the ruler and builder.
The place was finished in 1616 and is called the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles that cover the interior. When we take off our shoes and walk into the main chamber it stops us in our tracks. It is like nothing I have experienced before and it has the same kind of feeling as walking into the Vatican. Both significant houses of worship both so much larger than life.
Candelabras hang down from the dome and hover just above us: the wires holding them crisscross above like spider webs. Until recently they held small candles, now little electric lights allowing for easy reading of the Koran. There is a pulpit but the leaders climb only half way up, the top is reserved for Muhammad. Script is everywhere. And then there are the tiles.
It is a sea of blue. Some of the patterns repeat, others standalone, collectively they create a tapestry. Yavuz points out that they are filled with meaning, telling stories through symbols and patterns. It’s truly remarkable.
After some time we manage to pull away and wander over to the Hippodrome, an old chariot racetrack from the third century AD. Today it is a nice walking park with several obelisks carved by the Egyptians around1500 BC and brought here by the Romans. In its heyday the stadium on this site could hold 100,000 people.
The kids eat ears of corn hot off the grill as we walk the park. For a few minutes we are out of the fray. Istanbul is very crowded with tourists. It may be more crowded than Rome if that’s possible. People are everywhere, being lead around by someone holding a stick and waving a flag. They travel in big packs, walk three and four abreast and seem generally ignorant of those around them. We can’t relate and try to avoid them. Luckily Yavuz knows the ins and out so for the most part we can keep our distance.
Heard on the street: “Mister, mister USA, come here, we cheat you less than the other ones!” Said with a big smile, a wink and a nod.
The next stop is really unique and one of the coolest things yet. The Basilica Cistern was part of the main water system of the ancient city and is between 1500-2000 years old. When we wander down into the darkness Vince immediately starts asking of his headlamp. “For sploring, dad, for sploring!” How great it would be to see this through the eyes of a four year old. Or an eight year old. Adele is “kind of scared” and hovers behind Teri, inching along in the darkness, not quite sure what to make of it all.
There are hundreds of columns holding up the ceiling and wooden walkways standing just about the waterline. As we walk it feels like we are actually on the water. It sits perfectly still just beneath our feet and shimmers in the light. Everything about the place is dramatic.
At some point they need more columns to reinforce the roof so they grabbed anything lying around, including two enormous carved heads of Medusa that now sit sideways and upside down as supporting stones. How crazy is that?
Istanbul has grown from three million people to almost twenty million in the last thirty years. Think about that for a minute. It took NYC two hundred years to reach half that number: LA only has eight or nine in greater metro. It is had to understand that kind of growth and its impact.
They come in from the isolated regions of Turkey fleeing one war or another. Many come seeking a better life and more money, some a more open and less oppressive environment. Still many more bring with them a serious, fundamental religious perspective, less tolerance and more aggression. Yavuz seems worried.
Lunch is a place named the Pudding Shop, famous apparently as one of the cafes in the opening scenes of Midnight Express. In the 70s is was a tried and true local place where visitors and locals would post communications and connect. Today it is owned by the same family that owns our hotels and is right smack in the middle of the tourist route.
Luckily for us Yavuz knows the owner. Actually I believe Yavuz knows everyone in the neck of the woods. People go out of their way to say hello to him as we walk. Turns out he has been guiding here for twenty-seven years. We are in good hands. The guy in charge clears us a table upfront and takes us all to the front counter where we look and point at dishes. He notes everything and disappears in to the back room only to reappear with plates of all the things we pointed to. No menus here: just point and shoot. The food is excellent: a lot of veggies, olives, oils, bread, beans, and tea. Very strong local shai tea. We spend a wonderful hour getting to know Yavuz and resting our weary bones.
At around 2p we are back on our feet and heading towards our next stop, Aya Sofya, one of the oldest churches in town dating back to 400 AD. The dome is impressive and is one of the largest freestanding domes in the world. It reminds us of the Pantheon. Can Adele get a better third grade education? One day we at the Pantheon, the next in Aya Sogya.
Today the site is a museum and is no longer a house of worship: instead it pays tribute to an ever-changing landscape that is Istanbul. It is not only the architecture and the history but also the religious and cultural climates.
Istanbul is one of the most fascinating places I have been to. It is influenced by Asia, Europe and the Middle East. There are major ruins from every period in history. Really, really old stuff sits beneath stuff from the Ottoman, Roman, Greek, and who know what other empires. Religions smash up here and run into each other without holding back. It is very much alive.
We find the city’s sense of constant movement and its ever changing nature amplified in the Spice Market. As we wander through, so thankful for Yavuz, you can feel the pulse and rhythm. Pretty much anything and everything is for sale here. There are big piles of spices and teas, shoes, leather goods, clothing, jewelry, birds, leeches, all sorts of animals, and more people than you can imagine. The stroller makes navigation difficult!
At one point as we wander down a narrow side street Yavuz pulls us inside a small doorway and we head up an ancient flight of marble steps. One flight up we open onto the courtyard of Rustem Pasha Mosque, known for one of the finest collection of ceramic tiles in all of Istanbul. Again it is stunning and beautiful.
The people of Turkey seem to say the same thing of our children. Since we got here strangers have been touching Adele and Vince at every turn. It is a natural response and done with out malice or bad intent though it takes some getting used to for all of us. People here will cross the street to reach out and touch the kids blond hair. If I were any shorter I am convinced they would do the same to me!
So it comes as no surprise to find Vince bouncing on a policeman’s knee when we step out of the mosque. Vince is laughing and joking with the guy and Yavuz, telling them all about The Backyardagins, perfectly comfortable and so excited to have “new friends”. What surprised me is that we don’t need to think twice. The interest in and admiration of kids is so genuine that it takes you back some. As we leave and the policeman gives Vin a big kiss on the cheek, Yavus smiles and points out that it is always good to have a friend on the force here in Istanbul. I hope we never find out why.
On the way back from a very long and exciting day we make one more stop at Sirkeci, the railway station for the orient express. It sits just up from the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market having feed both the goods and wears of Asia for so many years. In the end we all exhausted.
As we wander home I notice that drinking tea on the steps in Istanbul is like sipping 40s on the stoop in Brooklyn. People are just hanging out, almost always in small groups, passing time, enjoying each other’s company. It has that distinctly urban feel about it. It makes you want to be a part of it.
Back at the hotel we Skype back to the States, get some room service and settle in. Both kids have trouble going down, which means we don’t get any down time, which means everyone is cranky and out of sorts. On top of that, just to add a little more edge to the situation, we have a 4.4 earthquake that rocks our fifth floor room.
I would be concerned but the music from the market below provides a steady under current and the Blue Mosque is calling for prayers again. From what I can tell the loud speakers are calling out to Allah to protect us all.
What a day…
Day One Hundred and Nine October 4th
The loud speakers repeat their call at 5a and jolt us out of a deep sleep. It is too early to start another day so we roll back over until 9a. Actually, as it turns out we forgot the time change so its really 10a and Yavuz is meeting us at 10:30a. We try and bang out a quick breakfast but is tough to motivate and we end up being about half hour late for our start.
This morning we decide to go to the Topkapi Palace with the rest of Istanbul. There are so many people on line to get through security we almost give up. Yavuz tells us in all his years he has never seen it this bad. Apparently four or five cruise ships are in town and they all seem to be on the same agenda. Poor party planning in my book.
When we finally get in the place is really impressive. We see the royal jewels with an 86-caret diamond; tile covered rooms, beautiful gardens, the imperial gate, courtyards and the like. The line for the harem is way too long so we skip it, probably best with the kids.
Yavus tells how they would raise all the male heirs secluded together in one of the areas until the time came and one was picked to b the next sultan. Then on the evening of the decision all the rest would be killed to stave off any disagreements with the chosen one. Adele’s eyes are very, very wide as she absorbs it all. She is growing up fast on this trip taking in both the good and the bad.
As we walk towards our next destination:
Adele: “Why is it so strange?”
Adele: “The market!”
Dad: “What market?”
Adele: “The Grand Bizarre”
Grand is not big enough for this place. They should call it Mega or Uber. I think Yavuz said it has five thousand stalls. No kidding, five thousand. All selling stuff that you could easily convince yourself you really need. Like my new scarf. That’s right a scarf, everyone wears scarves here in Istanbul, it will look great back home. I feel like Lawrence of Arabia. Actually, it’s a practical purchase since the weather is colder than we expected. Certainly as practical as Adele’s belly dancing outfit which we buy with full accouterments: belly dancing started here you know.
We have lunch at a restaurant in the middle of the mayhem. The food is mediocre but the setting is cool and it feels good to sit down and take a breather. Our senses have been assaulted since we got off the plane. Everything is new and different. Even things that seem the same are not.
Our lunch conversation is telling in just how far we are from home. When we ask Yavus for travel recommendations he actually suggests we go to Iraq. To the area just over the Turkish border. This is how far from home we are. We have become travelers and travelers are not bound by borders.
Crazier still is that it dos not seem that insane to me. After all we are in Turkey, thinking of going to Damascus because we hear it is still off the tourist routes, what is a little side trip to Kurdish Iraq?
I feel this moment demonstrates some kind of fundamental shift, of what I am not sure. I am not afraid but know that perhaps I should be, not elated but know elation is a possibility, definitely not lost, but I have know idea where I am, not that I want know or really need to.
We get into a discussion about the wealth in the Middle East and Yavuz tells the story of guiding a contingent of oil money and how they spend to excess. They order things by the dozen and leave a trail of people paying their bills and shipping their stuff home. It sounds unbelievable.
Juxtapose that with meeting a guy that Yavuz knows who restores antique teapots and bowls. The only way he can get them clean is to dip them in some kind of acid, which he has done repeatedly for years now. His shop is packed to the brim with stuff and he stands amongst it all covered in soot. When I ask what he charges for several unique bowls Yavuz that buys I am told that since the guy believes the acid is killing him he doesn’t really charge much to friends. He just wants to see his work go to someone that appreciates it. It makes your head spin.
Shopping for rugs is an experience here. We don’t mean to shop for rugs it just kind of happens. We stopped by Punto Carpets to see a women hand looming and two hours later we have it narrowed down to three we really like. How does this happen? One minute the kids are at the loom then next we are trying to figure out how to wire money. It is fun but we really need to leave, any longer and we would be sitting on Adele’s 520 Plan.
Vince is a natural born salesman. He spends the entire visit laying out carpets, directing the guys that work there and trying to up sell other customers. At one point the host offers him a job. No doubt, at some point down the road he may come back and accept it.
When we get back to the Blue Hotel, Melissa, Yavuz’s fifteen-year-old daughter is waiting to watch the kids so Teri and I can have a night on the town. How nice it is to have someone we can trust. The kids immediately take to her and we are long forgotten in a matter of minutes. While we get ready, they take a walk to the get something to eat. As it turn out a friend of Yavuz’s gives Adele a chain for her horn, one that we have been looking for all day at the market. She is beside herself.
Our restaurant is on the other side of town and Yavuz decides to wait to drive Melissa home, so he volunteers to take us over via train. It is great fun. We train over and then walk a new neighborhood filled with people out for the evening. This is a younger hipper Istanbul. With streets filled with teahouses and bars, outside tables packed with people hanging out and having fun. Everyone wear dark colors and sits in groups of friends or family. It is vibrant and buzzing.
Our restaurant is on top of a hotel and it has an unbelievable view of the city. We sit at the bar for a bit, Teri sipping a $26 martini, until a table opens. Catch that one? $26 for a martini. The meal was good, not great, but the time alone was priceless.
When we get back at 10p everyone is still awake and it is back to the grind of the day to day. Vince will not go down until he climbs into bed with Teri and I end up on the sofa with feet hanging over the side.
No worries though, the Blue Mosque calls everyone to prayer.
Day One Hundred and Ten October 5th
Unfortunately all that prayer does not take care of the bugs in the breakfast cereal. When Vince puts his spoon in to a moving bowl it kills all of the momentum. We wrap up the meal shortly there after.
Teri is dealing with Bank of America AGAIN to try and get her cash card working. These calls take forever so the kids and I head out with Yavuz to explore some crafts shops. They are in a rehabbed building just around the corner and feature local artisans demonstrating their skills. We are the only ones there.
A nice guy comes out to talk to us and notices Vince’s CallMeCuff. I have the kids wearing them to test the adhesive before we take them to market and this one has my Skype number. He points and with a big smile asks:
Guy: “For the accounts?”
Me: “My phone number, to call me.”
Guy: “Yes, for the accounts, the numbers.”
Me: “Not accounts, for phone, in case he gets lost.”
Guy: “Not for lost, for the accounts, so you wire the money to return.”
It gives me chills when I realize what he is saying. We are not in Kansas anymore.
Teri finishes up with BoA and joins us as we head to the Islam Museum just off the Hippodrome. It houses an incredible collection of carpets one that you should not miss. After that we walk for a bit before getting into Yavuz’s car for a driving tour of the old wall and a stop at Kariyre Camii.
This is a small church somewhere in Istanbul, I have no idea where. It is famous for the mosaics that line most of the interior. The detail is incredible. The artist used the smallest pieces of stone. Having been to the shop in Rome we can appreciate just home much work goes into each fresco. It is the quality that is so striking: these have lasted for over a thousand years so far.
We cross the bridge for lunch over in Asia. This is a new part of the city, with wider streets and more of an Asian influence. As we walk the streets we fall upon a market with all kinds of sights, smells and sounds. They sell sardines from big tubs, goat heads, pig’s feet, and olives in every color, fresh vegetables, pashmire scarves, pants and cell phones. Again its exciting and stimulating just to walk around. There is much hustle and bustle.
Our meal is the best yet, maybe one of the best on the trip. We end up in a small innocent looking restaurant that serves out of this world organic food. All of it from regional recipes handed down by generations. We eat all kinds of things and enjoy every bit of it.
Our search for an Apple firewire may have ended on the fifth floor of a high-rise building dedicated solely to electronics. We need one to transfer the information from our old one to the new and this is our last hope for a while. Hopefully this will work and the computer saga will finally come to an end.
Our last stop for the day is a mountain top view of all of Istanbul over in Uskudar. It is a fitting way to wrap up our time here, proving that we have seen so much and barely scratched the surface. The city goes on forever. We stay for a while and enjoy the views until we all agree that it is time to ferry back across the Bosphorus at call it a day.
We ask Yavuz how things are going in Turkey. His response surprises us though he has hinted at it over the past few days. The fundamentalist movement is gaining strength to the point that he is concerned. In the last twenty days or so, post a recent election, the country has taken a noticeable turn. In his eyes not for the better and you can feel his tension when he discusses it. As fathers of daughters and husbands of wives, we share empathy. This neck for the woods is not known for respecting women’s rights. It is hard to think that a city of such stature can change on a dime. Unfortunately in this neck of the woods it can and has happened for thousands of years.
Today is our last day of guiding and we must part ways with Yavuz. I can’t express how much he did for us and how thankful we are too him. He made Istanbul come alive and is a large part of why we love it so.
Day One Hundred and Eleven October 6th
I will miss the loudspeakers of the Blue Mosque. They are one of the best wake up calls I know of: so foreign and different, reminding you that you are in a foreign land yet still under the watch full eyes of God. Today we manage to get up, pack and taxi to the airport by 8:30a that in and of itself is a miracle.
We are in a different airport this time flying Turkish Air domestic to Cappadocia. Luckily we are there early enough to have breakfast and coffee pre-flight. Teri strikes up a conversation with some folks on the jet way as we board the plane and it turns out they are the parents of our neighbors two doors down. It is such a small world.
It takes a while to cram everyone onto the bus that takes us to the plane. We wait forever while folks push their way in to the already crowded cars. Teri and I fight off the crush to save some airspace for Adele and Vince. When we are all accounted for the driver makes and announcement, closes the doors and pulls away. Then he stops and parks about twenty yards away, the doors open and everyone starts to scramble out to get on the plane. I kid you not: I could throw a stone farther than we drove on the bus. Why we didn’t walk is beyond me.
The flight is full of tourists. It could be one of the old shuttle flights between LAG and Logan. It seems most people are from the east coast with a few Canadians thrown in here and there. It is disappointing in a way: I half expected chickens and goats.
We land in middle of nowhere. The land is arid and dry with low lying hills and few trees. It is sunny with little shade. After gathering the bags we find a guy form Avis standing outside with our name on a sign. It does feel good to know you are in the right place. The single runway and tiny airport gives little comfort.
Driving is easy since there are no people on the road. We see a few cars when we pass through towns but for the most part it is deserted. In the first town we come to I venture in to a small market to get directions. You do need a healthy dose of courage for adventures like this. Luckily the fascination with our kids continues and the six or seven rough looking men all smile and laugh as they hover around the car window. The Turks maybe the nicest people we have meet along the way.
Armed with Coke lights, chips and waters for less than a third of what we paid in Istanbul we are back on the road and headed in the right direction. Cappadocia is known for houses built into rock towers that were left by centuries of erosion from the elements. The early Christians used them to hide out in the hills avoid persecution. Today they are still used as houses and increasingly as high-end hotels.
We are staying at the Museum Hotel, perched on a hilltop with one of the best views of the valley below. Our room is incredible. The kids have their own cave, one used for storage and wine making in the old days. Teri and I are in the main room, big enough for a bedroom suite, living room and work area. These cave people know how to live it up!
Once settled we turn to town and find The Orient, an organic restaurant recommended by the owner of our hotel. The food is excellent with big salads, lots of olives, tomatoes, bread and cheese. The kids’ even try Turkish pasta, a ravioli dish with a yogurt based sauces.
As usual Vince refuses to eat, Adele tries to convince him to:
Adele: “you need to eat to grow”
Vince: “yes but I don’t want to grow I am already four”
Adele: “not four, grow bigger”
Vince: “you mean if you don’t eat you will not be nine?”
Istanbul wore us out so we head back home to play with the puppy at the hotel, search for turtles in the garden, catch the sunset on the veranda, and watch the lights flicker on across the valley. We need to adjust and calibrate to the Turkish countryside. We are farther east, closer to the borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria. It all takes some getting used to.
Everyone is too tired to attempt the restaurant so we order room service and try to wind down. As usual the excitement has Adele and Vince wound up so it takes a few hours to get them to bed. Teri and I work on travel logistics, pay bills and journal. By 11p the kids are tucked into their cave and all is well.
Update on the family travel service business: Yavuz proved how valuable local knowledge and “boots on the ground” experience is when exploring a new place, especially with children. He was so impactful to all of us but especially Adele and Vince: teaching them on a level they can relate to and lending a credible voice from someone other than the parents. His travel partner helped us with all of our arrangements for Turkey setting us up with in-market flights and hotels. A new twist on the family travel idea we are working on is to couple a local guide service and a local travel agent to offer a service dedicated to families with kids.
Day One Hundred and Twelve October 7th
We sleep late in the cool, calm, quiet of the cave. Breakfast is OK but not great in terms of price value. We are getting by on bread and honey, tomatoes, cucumbers and olives. Plus, we have developed a taste for Turkish and Apple tea.
As I glance at the IHT for the first time in ages I see that the travel alerts are cranked up and Europe appears to be on the warning list. Good think Turkey is considered by some to be Middle East, we pay in Lira not Euros. I do get the headlines from my Google home page but I have no interest in going any deeper, I have no need to know.
For some reason I read the article on the terror alerts as far down as the part where they arrested some guy, some place, some time in Italy for suspected terrorist activity. The guy turns out to plotting to blow things up, the somewhere turns out to be the train station in Naples and the sometime turns out to be within an hour of when we dropped of Denise. So now I know but am I any better for off for it? Timing is everything here and I trust ours will carry us through unscathed.
The caves are in an area similar to Mesa Verde or Bandelier NP. The doors dot the stone columns and lead into a vast underground network of pathways and tunnels.
We have fun wandering in and out of churches, houses, communal kitchens, a gravesite, and various other caves, all hidden in the mountainside. It is an odd place out in the middle of nowhere.
We see our first camel. He is all dressed up and ready to get his picture taken for 10TL. This sparks a long conversation about the seven hump wump and the merits of a one or two humper. We all decide that a two humper is the way to go, especially if you want go fast, that is unless we are all going, and then we definitely need a seven hump wump.
As we drive we find a turn out for a short hike in the hills. We are pretty much all alone wandering about in this surreal landscape. Then a nice guide appears with a couple from Canada and asks if we “know the snoop dog.” Snoop Dogg as in the rapper? “Snoop dog, snoop the dog!” The man is pointing, jumping up and down and waving his hands towards a rock. Snoop Dogg, as in yo, yo, mofo? “No, no, SnoopYdog, SnoopYdog!” And sure enough, there is the head of Snoopy if you look at the rocks just the right way. He pats me on the back beaming from eye to eye when I finally get it.
Then he looks around and leans in to let me in on a little secret, “Napoleon’s hat!” He nods in another rock’s direction. I look around to see if someone is filming us since the scene is so absurd. Sure enough there it is right there in front of me. When I point them out to the kids they ask, “Who is Snoopy?” and “what hat?” Then when I point out Tyrone from the Backyardagins the fun really begins!
Lunch/dinner is a 4p start at the Center Restaurant in town. It is in a little room heated with a wood stove and we are the only ones there. It is quick and easy and delicious. The food here is really top notch.
By 6p we are back at the hotel, by 8p we are in our caves trying to sleep, by 10p Vince is out with Teri in our cave and Adele and I are on the sultan sitting benches trying to sleep, by 11p we give up trying to get everyone to go down for the night, by midnight they finally do.
Day One Hundred and Thirteen October 8th
It’s raining when we wake. The desert takes on a strange vibe in the rain, almost as if it is a necessary evil. You get the feeling that this must be a tough place to hang your hat in the cold of winter.
We pack, take care of a few logistics and check out around noon. We are off today to see an underground city before we fly over to Izmir. The drive is dreary in the rain. Everything is brown and wet. The hillsides are pretty but they look uninviting and harsh in the mist. It feels like we are in a foreign land.
After we wind off the highway down and little road to nowhere we end up following hand made signs to the entrance to the underground city. At one point we double check to make sure it is really listed as a sight to see on the map.
When we pull up a kid comes out and tells us where to park. His mother comes out of a hut and points to a door with “Underground City” painted in white letters above. We walk into total darkness.
She follows, children in tow, and finds a light switch. A narrow passageway lies in front of us with a small bare bulb lighting the way. We take a deep breath and send out Vincent the Brave. He sprints down the tunnel. Adele starts to whimper.
It turns out to be a few rooms and passages underground. It is fascinating that people live this way. It has clearly been used for centuries and will probably be use for many more. Next time someone suggests we think less of our enemies for hiding in caves, politely suggest that they do not underestimate the situation. You must be extremely tough to live this kind of existence and the people here have been doing so for thousands of years.
On the way back to the airport we grab an excellent lunch at a place called Ziggy’s in Urgup. It was listed in a magazine article Teri has been carrying around all this time. See, it pays to save all those pull outs, this one is an excellent find.
The drive takes longer than expected and we get to the airport with only forty-five minutes to spare. I drop Teri and the kids off to clear luggage and drive two doors down to find the Avis counter. Then I do something that would never happen in the States, I pull up and leave the car curbside right in front of the terminal. No one seems to care.
The guy that dropped the car off in the other airport is at this one as well and he greets me with a big smile. I try and get him to help rent a car in Izmir but I cannot really remember the name of Izmir and may say something different plus the language barrier is tough. I have no idea what awaits us on the other end of the flight.
Check in is difficult. For some reason we are having trouble clearing the flight. At one point three or four people are looking at our tickets trying to figure something out. It takes well over forty-five minutes. The flight is delayed so we are OK on this side but now the connection in Istanbul is going to be tight.
At last they clear us and our bags are sent off to try and make it on board before the doors close. It is a mad scramble to get to the gate only to be delayed again and forced to wait another half hour. It is one of those days.
When we do finally land in Izmir it is past 8p and everyone is wiped out. Our rental car reservation never arrived but the guys at Avis do hook us up with a car for the next two days. It costs a bit more: that comes with the territory, but at the end of the day we are mobile.
Our hotel, the Gullu Konaklari is in the town of Sirince. We drive in darkness and arrive past 9p. We are at the end of a single lane cobble stone street, 8K up a mountainside, in the middle of nowhere again. Our room is just big enough for our bed, Adele’s roll away and Vince’s crib. We stack our luggage in the bathroom. Oh, did I mention it is freezing?
Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.
Week 15 - Amalfi. Pompeii and Carpi 10/02/2010
Day One Hundred September 25th
We are on a 10:45a train to Salerno. How Italian does that sound? In order to get to the station on time we need to eat, pack, call a cab and mail a box back home. Guess which one is the most challenging.
Post Italia sits a block or so away from the apartment and after a failed attempt to mail our yellow box yesterday afternoon I now know that the doors open at 8:30a. That’s plenty of time to mail a box. We picked up a bright yellow box last night and filled it up with all sorts of things including, but not limited to: (1) about half of our rock collection (2) Adele’s big white blanket (3) a few jackets (4) our European GPS. It weights in at 8 kilos.
The nice lady behind the counter speaks absolutely no English whatsoever and seems to think that I will understand Italian if she yells at me and says things twice. Since this is what I have been doing to others for the past month or so it seems perfectly natural to me. It appears I need to fill out some forms. She smiles and points to lines on the paperwork and goes on and on about this and that. I have no idea what she is talking about. There appears to be three of four of things to fill out: one needs passport info, another looks like a background check and the other two are for my parents address, a list of items and maybe some kind of valuation for tax information.
She sends me off with a pen. Everything moves along fine until we get to the item list and the valuation. First off who really knows what’s in the box. We all added stuff before closing it up. I list out the big white blanket, jackets and GPS and since they are all really old I listed them as having no value.
She looks at the list, looks at the weight, looks at the valuation and starts muttering and shaking her head. I would have listed rocks but I thought getting across the explanation would cause us to miss the train. After all I only have an hour and a half. Then she calls out a second lady from the back room and the questions come rapid fire.
The second lady does not speak English either. It appears they can’t understand want I have listed and they need to look up each time in the computer. We tackle the easy one first. “Bambino jacket!” I explain miming the process of putting on a jacket and pointing to a guy standing in line wearing one. It takes a few minutes but we work it out.
Then comes the GPS. I had a feeling electronics might be a problem. Using my iPod as a sample I set it on the counter kind of like a GPS, semi-sit down to pretend I am driving and then look at it for directions. It all makes perfect sense to me. They call out a third lady to see if she can help. This one takes a little longer.
At last we come to the blanket. The line is now five or six deep and there are three ladies trying to interpret. It feels like we are playing, “Lets make the foreigner do funny things”, the people on line are now in the game and folks are shouting out what they think the answer is. Blanket is a hard one.
I take off my shirt and lie down on the floor and then cover myself back up with the shirt like a blanket. All the while I am shouting out, “Blanketo, blanketo for bambino! Mia daughtereriao has a blanco blanketo!” Every few seconds I look nervously at the clock because I sense it is getting late. They look very concerned.
At long last someone on line yells out the word for blanket in Italian and everyone seems to breath a sigh of relief. They all laugh and clap hands and go back to what ever they were doing before. I get dressed and hand her my credit card.
The nice lady ignores it and looks at the line that lists the box weight at 8 kilos and then back at the three items I have listed as contents. It is a stretch to thinking they weight 8 kilos. I should have listed the rocks.
Did I mention that this Italian Post is a very serious place? You enter one at a time though a series of locked doors and what appears to be a metal detector and cameras. You take a number and they call you up one at a time to stand all alone in front of the counter. The first thing they did was scan my passport. It is like crossing a border.
8 kilos, three items: three items, 8 kilos. She looks me over: I stand and smile. I stand and smile: she looks me over. Again. The minutes click by. After two more meetings with the ladies in the back she picks up my credit card.
It turns out they don’t take credit cards. Imagine that. I have been at the counter for almost an hour, I have tried to pay twice with the credit card (by mistake, in all the confusion of filling out the forms) and not once did they mention anything about payment, until now, with minutes to spare, and they decide they want 100E in cash.
It makes you want to cry. “ATM!” I shout. “BankOmat?” she shouts back. “Si, si, BankOmat!” I shout again. She hand motions “around the corner” and I run off like a rabbit. She looks a bit concerned that I am leaving the box but I can’t wait around to explain. I run out the door, around the corner into the square and start sprinting from corner to corner in search of the machine.
I can’t find it. I run up one block, then back, then up another and back again. Finally in utter frustration, I stop, card in hand and resign myself to missing the train. That’s when someone from the line inside sees me and comes out to lead me over to the BankOmat right around the corner from the entrance exactly where she said it was.
Mental note to self: no more mail from Italy.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, poor Teri is stuck with all of the packing and prepping. Thankfully when I return everyone is ready to roll. Our hosts bid us safe travels, pour us into a cab and we are off to the station, T-minus forty-five minutes to lift off.
We settle into our first class seats on EuroStar Italia, only a few extra Euros and worth every penny, with five minutes to spare. It has been an incredible stay here in Rome: one of our greatest adventures to date. As we pull out of the station we say goodbye and hope to once again return.
Our packing strategy has been refined several times now and we have become a lean mean travelling machine. Between the four of us we can now carry everything we need to survive on the road. We probably have one or two extra small bags but I have a feeling we will shed them on the intra-Turkey flights. All in all we are primed and ready for the Middle East.
But first we have a week of relaxation in Ravello on the Almafi coast.
Salerno’s train station is small compared to Rome, filled with homeless people, dirty and generally unappealing. Welcome to southern Italy. We are just south of Naples, north of Sicily and in kind of a no man’s land seemingly searching for an identity. They have found one in the rocky coastline of Amalfi.
Our taxi driver meets us with a big, broad smile. He seems genuinely excited to see us! Born and raised in Ravello, he knows every inch of the winding road and handles the twists and turns sure footed, like mountain goat. I thank God I am not driving.
Our hotel, Hotel Scarpiello, hangs over the cliff. Our room is 150 steps or so down towards the sea, close to the pool and on top of the ocean. The waves are pounding so hard into the castle wall beneath us that the doors to the balcony shake and the windows rattle. Apparently surf is up.
We explore the grounds and settle in. Adele and I are charged with going to the store to stock up on provisions. The guys at the front desk say the market is no more that 600 yards away, just a short, easy walk. Clearly he has lost all perspective.
It is a harrowing walk along the side of a hairpin laden, one lane road (maybe considered two lanes here but not in my world). Cars and buses pass by inches from us, going very fast, at times actually accelerating into blind turns. We fear for our lives.
All this risk for the reward of a market tucked into the back of a bar: Adele determines it is 9m by 3m. The crazy thing is that when we first walk in we are convinced they will have nothing on our list. I mean we have candles on there and suntan lotion 30spf. Then, when we walk out a half hour later, we find that we have everything except for few minor items. Neither one of us has any idea how it all happened and we marvel at the experience.
Somehow, when the kids take showers, a big pool of water leaks out onto the bathroom floor and the spills out into the hallway. It leaves a big puddle right in the middle of the hallway. When we call the front desk they don’t seem to really care much and of course blame us for not closing the shower door. It was closed.
As Adele rounds the corner to go in to her room she slips on the puddle and crashes into the corner of the wall with such force that her head actually dents the plaster. Not good. She has a big indentation on the side of her head, no blood that we can see, but plenty of pain. I call the front desk for ice but it does not arrive. In a bit of panic I head up and find them watching TV. In the states we could sue them to kingdom come, here they could care a less. It is infuriating.
Adele is tough as nails in these situations. She handles it all very well and is really impressive in the situation. All we have is Tylenol, but it seems to do the trick. We cancel dinner and stay in keeping a sharp eye out for signs of a headache or mild concision.
Day One Hundred and One September 26th
I wake up in a bad mood, exhausted from trying to sleep over the sound of the crashing waves, with a pounding headache, two screaming children, an unsympathetic wife and no where to run. Every once in awhile we have these days. All of us do in some form or another. All you can do is ride them out and hope they pass with as little damage as possible. 24/7/365 can be a bit much at times.
We have breakfast and then try to catch the bus to Amalfi. On Sundays the buses make their own schedules. We wait for half and hour in a doorway of a house on the really narrow street with the cars screaming by inches from Adele and Vince before we decide to call it a day. It is apparent that logistics here are going to be an issue.
The pool is very nice and we make the best of the rain and clouds. Teri decides to walk to Amalfi, as much to take a break from the rest of us as to shop I think, and she heads off to fight the oncoming traffic. Seriously, it is like bull fighting with cars on that road.
It is a slow day spent waiting for Aunt Denise and passing time trying to relax. The kids are beyond excited for her visit. All they can do is make little gifts, color cards and presents and ask over and over, “how much longer?”
The highlight of the afternoon, aside from the rickety ping pong table, is our discovery of the lemon trees and a juicer to make fresh lemonade. We spend a good hour or two picking lemons, squeezing them, adding in just the right amount of sugar and water and serving it to Teri. Great fun.
Dinner is a simple pasta with local olives cooked in olive oil, topped with fresh Provolone cheese.
By the time Denise arrives it is well past 11p. Talk about a journey: taxi to LAX, Los Angeles to London, London to Rome via planes, then Rome to Naples, Naples to Salerno by trains, then taxi to the hotel. Twenty-four hours en route. All with a suitcase full of work and play clothes, stuff for her meetings at Cannes, our new computer, my callmecuffs samples, eight people magazines and a few Vanity Fairs. She is truly amazing!
Adele wakes up to greet her and we all catch up for few hours before calling it a night. This may be our latest night yet! Such excitement and so great to see someone from home...
Day One Hundred and Two September 27th
Breakfast here is simple but plentiful. They have good strong coffee, rolls, pastries, coco and tea for the kids and fresh fruit from the trees in the garden. All of the guests seem to congregate and share travel stories and tips of things to do along the coast. This morning we meet several couples form the Boston area, a couple from Chicago, some ladies from Denver and one more couple from Vegas. It appears everyone here is from the States, most sourced the place from a blurb either online or in a past edition of Travel and Leisure. It shows the power of the press.
Jet lag hits Denise so she heads back to bed while the rest of us lounge at pool, catch up on journals, do some school work and mill about the hotel. By mid-afternoon we manage to find a small local restaurant, supposedly 30 meters around the corner (do not believe the guys at the front desk) for lunch. It is mediocre at best. I think part of it is that our standards are so high after almost a month in Italy that anything ordinary seems average.
The town of Ravello is a short hike, 1700 steps, uphill. I have no idea what we are thinking about when we start to climb. Teri and Vince and the first to bail: Adele, Denise and I make it to the mid-point then we too turn around and head back down. From now on we take cabs.
Our afternoon is spent making more lemonade, sharing experiences, getting news from back home and relaxing.
Dinner is another “short” walk, this time in the dark along the treacherous road, to a place owned by the same people that own our hotel. Again it has all the potential to be great, no menu just a waiter taking orders, tiles of Italian scenery on the walls, a nice friendly atmosphere but the food is just mediocre. Maybe this area is known more for the scenery than the food.
Vince is out of control again so we need to leave. Both kids have been out of sorts for days. They are not sleeping, acting out and generally out of control from about 5p until they go down around 10p. We try to get them to bed earlier to no avail. This then cuts into my time downtime with Teri. Actually, we have none.
Maybe it is the change of seasons, or that life continues back home and we are not part of it. Or maybe it is that we are not home for the beginning of school or no longer active in an “industry”, of missing family and friends. Hopefully we will figure it out and it will all pass before we hit the Middle East. I have a feeling we will need all the sleep we can get to tackle Istanbul.
At the end of the evening we are back home once again catching up on life and telling tales of travel.
Day One Hundred and Three September 28th
I travelled a lot as a kid: even more as an adult. And where ever we go there are a few places that I always use for comparison. The memories of past visits are used to judge, rank and file the present day experience. Visiting Pompeii as a kid is one of my benchmarks.
I have distinct memories of Pompeii that flash about and wander around in my head. It was very hot on a blistering summer day. We walked forever in the sun. The ruins were unlike anything we had seen before: they appeared to be massive and endless. It was one of the first times in my life that came to understand and experience historical perspective. At least that I remember. It impressed me that people lived there a thousand years ago. In a city much like our cities today.
Now I get to return and test those memories to see if they still hold true. I also get the rare gift of creating a lasting impression with my children like my parents did with me. Such promise as we drive over the mountains on the narrow, winding roads.
Antonio, our driver, is from this neck of the woods so we are in good hands on the twists and turns. He spends his day driving a cab, hunting for truffles with his trained “wild ‘ boar, checking in with his brother (a very successful restaurateur in the States – Vegas and Georgetown) and spending time with his wife and kids. He gives a familiar honk to people he knows as we drive by. You notice that he seems to be very happy and content with life.
The first sight of Vesuvius takes us by surprise. When you crest the last mountain and start down towards the valley floor it looms over everything. The upper third is gone, blown away during the eruption, much like Mt. St. Helens back home. A friend of mine gave me a great book, Volcano Chaser’s, that talks about the great eruptions and the power and force they release. All I can think about are the descriptions of the magnitude of these events as we look down on the small towns below. From this perspective the people of Pompeii had not chance what-so-ever.
The entrance way is a bit chaotic. Somehow we get caught up with a Japanese tour group and it takes us a while to shake them. It really doesn’t matter though as the place is jammed with people. When you first come in it is totally overwhelming. There are people everywhere trying to follow some crazy numbering system that makes no sense to any of us, we wander guidebook in hand, map unfolded, pointing and flipping pages.
We do what we usually do in these situations and instinctively move in the opposite direction of the crowds. Within a few minutes we are all alone on a quiet side street standing amongst the rubble.
Our time here exceeds expectations. After four hours of touring we mange to tear ourselves away having done only about a third of what there is to see. Hunger and a 2:30 scheduled pickup drive us outside to find a restaurant. Yes, it is another mediocre meal, but at least this time we have adjusted our expectations. On the way back home we manage a quick stop at the grocery store and stock up the rest of the week.
When we get back, the hotel has opened up the lower gates and we are able to swim in the sea! We can dive right off a platform on the rocks at the base of the lower landing. When you swim out you realize why the tour boats keep driving by our hotel. It looks like a castle! Plus, there are huge sea caves along our coast.
Adele is now diving in headfirst and swimming back to the ladder on her own, seemingly without fear though it is hard to tell. She does however insist someone is in with her at all times. Even Vince goes in with me and floats around for a bit. The salt content is so high you can’t help but to float.
We return to the room where Adele and Denise prepare our evening meal of salad, chicken, fresh spinach and assorted cheeses. Both are very excellent cooks and Adele is beside herself with joy as she has been talking about doing this for weeks!
The sage continues with our new computer. The fire wire does not seem to connect the two together so we can’t transfer Teri’s files to the new machine. As if that’s not enough, somewhere along the way all of the Microsoft Office files have vanished from my section so I can’t open any files, including our budget and my journal. I wish I had a little IT guy in a box we could carry around with us to solve all these issues. These are the things that take up huge amounts of time for common folk like us.
After dinner Vince is totally out of control and refuses to go down. Adele is equally out of sorts as she wants to stay up until we all go to bed so she does not miss anything. It seems the evening dynamic is one that needs to and must change. It better or we may not make it.
Just to add to the frustration level I have the unpleasant task of writing to the Cooking Vacations people again outlining our understanding of the contract, countering their last email and once again requesting our money back. Overall its a tough end to a great day.
Pompeii remains a benchmark in my mind.
Day One Hundred and Four September 29th
It was a restless night of sleep or, better yet, non-sleep. Believe it or not at times the logistics and dynamics of travel make for stress and that has to manifest itself somehow. With me it’s the 2a wake up call.
We have breakfast on the veranda with the rest of the other guests and plan out the day. In an attempt to make up for the cooking fiasco in Tuscany we have arranged for Denise and Adele to attend a one day class up the hill in Ravello. It is in one of these agri-tourism deals with all natural ingredients picked fresh form the garden.
Everyone heads out around 10:30a leaving me to do bills and catch up on journal writing. It is a nice couple of hours of solitude, most of it spent on logistics.
It turns out the class is more of a lecture: they don’t actually cook as a group but instead watch a chef do so and explain away in Italian. Adele hangs in there the entire time and seems to have enjoyed it. It is hard to tell. Why we can’t catch a break and have a place where they actually roll dough and make pasta is beyond me. That’s all the kids want to do.
The rest of the day passes slowly by with a home cooked meal, a swim in the sea and another tough time getting everyone to bed. Life in Ravello happens in slow motion. Probably just what we need right now.
Day One Hundred and Five September 30th
I have been wearing my Italian horn for almost forty years. It has brought me incredible luck in life and thus far fought off any evil spirits that have come my way. Once or twice is has gone missing but it always comes back. I can’t imagine life without it.
My Italian horn hails from the Isle of Capri, a small island about an hour and a half by ferry. Today we are setting off to find one for Adele so she can be like her dad. The fact that she actually wants to be like her dad fills me with joy. The deal is she needs to come back forty years later with her kids and pass on the tradition. For me it is one of the highlights of the trip.
One of the nice things about our hotel is that the set up allows you to get to know the other guests. At this point we are all on a first name basis and we go out of our way to say hello if we run into each other in Amalfi or at Pompeii. As we check in on plans for the day it seems everyone at breakfast is heading out on the 9:45a boat to take advantage of the calm seas.
The ferry holds a few hundred people by the looks of it. There are two sections: an upper deck with outside seating and an inside seating area below. We grab the inside seats and settle in.
As we hug the shoreline heading towards the end of the peninsula and out into open seas, we pass countless small towns and villages, some reachable only by boat. Remains of castles sit on hilltops: a few single houses standalone on rocky cliffs. Lemon trees are terraced on steep hillsides and grape vines drape over ancient stonewalls. It is exactly what you think of when Italy comes to mind.
It is our first glorious day in a while and the warm sunshine helps keep the chill from the wind and sea at bay. In no time we are pulling into the main harbor on Capri. So is everyone else in Europe.
The place is crawling with people. There are so many people that we can not figure out how to get from the base of the cliff where the ferry drops you off up to town which is about two and a half kilometers up the hill. The line for the cable car is insane. There is a bus that holds about twenty people but it looks like only one is running per hour and there are probably over a hundred people waiting in line. A few hearty souls are starting to walk, not really an option with the stroller. The thought of turning around and heading back to the mainland cross everyone’s mind: but not those of us in search of horns!
Luckily, as if by fate, we hook up with a really nice Canadian family that is also staying at our hotel and we all decide to bite the bullet and take a cab. It is an excellent idea! For twenty Euro, just a bit more than a cable car would be for all of us, we are up to the top in no time.
Our new friends are a wonderful family from Toronto. They have a girl a year or two older than Adele and in short order the two of them are off together being kids and having fun. We all wander together along the main street past the high end shops and boutiques. It looks as though all of the shopping is over the top expensive. Its funny, the streets are jammed, but very few people have shopping bags. I have no idea how these places survive.
Our meandering soon leads us to the other side of the island and to a lookout onto several rocks jetting from the sea that sort of remind me of Cabo. Down at the base for the cliff, along the waters edge, we spy a few umbrellas and what appears to be a place for lunch. Let’s go down to the waterline.
The lunch spot sits on the edge of a little cove with a sitting area and several boat slips carved into rock. Our table is pretty much on the water, overlooking the bay. I have no idea how they built the place: must have brought all of it around by boat. The kitchen in big and airy, the tables and eating area are all clean and inviting. They are serving a catch of the day, salads and pastas, all fresh and delicious. It is just what we are looking for.
We waste away an hour or two in great conversation, enjoying quality time with newly found friends. Toronto sounds like a great place to visit! By the end of lunch we are already planning a trip to the new spa they are building just outside of Blue Mountain.
The hike up goes better than expected, largely due to a lollypop and the promise of gelato. Incentives always work in these situations, much better than carrying kids on your shoulders let me tell you.
On the way back into town Adele finds her Italian horn in the window of one of the jewelry stores. She is jumping for joy! We head in together and start shopping. The first one has too may twists and looks like a hot pepper. The second one is too big and the third too small. After several more attempts we finally find just the right one, and it looks perfect on her.
We pass on a chain, thinking it best to get one next week in Istanbul. We do however get a horn for Vince as a Christmas gift. I let Adele know that the condition of getting one and explain that she needs to bring her kids back to get one someday. She listens intently and solemnly nods her head. In the end we leave with two little boxes and one very excited eight-year-old girl (and her dad!).
The 5:15p boat is fast! The one and an half hour trip this morning turns into a forty-five minute barnburner of a return. In no time we are back in town, with groceries in hand, hailing a cab to go back to the hotel.
Somehow, I have no idea how these guys do it, our regular cab driver Antonio is waiting there for us at the taxi stand. I can’t believe it: we never told him when we were coming in. And it is all so natural, he is just there as if he should be there and so should we. So, we all pile in and everything is great. However these things happen they certainly add to the overall experience and make you want to come back again.
With fresh food and wine, we all gather on the balcony overlooking the ocean and have a party. It is our family, the Canadians and two couples we have been hanging out with from Boston. It is a great time that turns into a long dinner at our place and several hours of great conversation and much, much fun!
Everyone gets to bed very late, including the kids, as we finish the dishes well after midnight.
It is true that the people you meet along the way make for the best memories. I am sure this day, and this week, will linger for quite a while.
Day One Hundred and Six October 1st
Today is a catch up day. We all need to plug in and get some logistics done before we head over the edge and drift even further off the grid into Turkey.
Teri and Denise spend the morning on dueling computers, booking flights, hotels, rental cars and expeditions. By mid-afternoon the month of October is shaping up to be stellar.
I spend the day with the kids swimming in the pool and down at in the sea. The jellyfish are gone so we can safely dive off the dock into the salty, warm waters. There is nothing like swimming in the ocean to sooth the soul.
At around 2p or so, Teri and Denise head to Positano while the rest of us stay behind and rest. Everyone is a bit tired after a full week and a late night last evening.
With the girls out late, the rest of us decide to bed down early, for tomorrow we leave the comforts and familiarity or Europe and we fly to the heart of the Ottoman Empire.
It is time for a magic carpet ride!