“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.”