Israel, November 2015: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv… Bucket List Item Number 3

Note: This is the final travel memoir in the series. This story and the 20 stories preceding it will be made into an e-book. More information will follow.

Flying from Egypt to Israel is not easy. For starters there aren’t any flights. It’s even more difficult doing it the other way. The Egyptians supposedly hassle you if you have Israeli stamps in your passport. To get from Cairo to Tel Aviv, I spent a night in Amman, Jordan. I was going to stay longer in Jordan and visit Petra, one of the great sights of the world, but when I found that it took all day and well into the evening to make the trip down and back, I shortened that part of the trip. The whole thing sounded like a pain in the butt to me. One needs to do these things when one is younger and in good health. 20 years ago, I would’ve taken cheap local transit down there, stayed overnight in a budget hotel and walked my ass off all day checking out Petra.

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Even though I didn’t stay long in Jordan, I was impressed. Considering the turbulent neighborhood he lives in, the King seems to be managing well. I enjoyed my one night in Amman and flew into Tel Aviv the next morning.

Immediately upon arrival in Tel Aviv, I booked a car and driver straight to Jerusalem. The journey was a pleasant hour-long, uphill ride. From the well paved highway, one can see a number of towns perched on the hills on either side of the freeway. Israel gives the feel and appearance of a developed country. After having lived in developing countries for a number of years, one can sense the difference. It certainly appears cleaner and better organized than Egypt where I had just been, for example.

 

 

My Jewish friend in Bangkok who is a correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, recommended that I stay at the King David Hotel. Upon investigation I discovered that this hotel is where the heads of state stay when they visit and would cost me 600 a night. While at this stage of my life my money is probably going to outlast me, I couldn’t bring myself to pay that and I stayed across the street at the Eldan Hotel at number 24 King David St. for a quarter of the price. Only a 15 minute walk to the Jaffa gate, It was a perfect location for seeing the old city of Jerusalem.

 

 

I made several visits to the Old City. The three monotheistic religions have several extremely important sites here. What is interesting is that they are all within a couple hundred meters of each other. This also has been a great point of contention over the years. Who should control this land? The recent announcement that the United States would move its embassy to Jerusalem has tended to bolster Israel’s case and has provoked a large number of protests.

 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem is the most sacred site in Christianity. This is thought to be Calvary where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. You can see and touch the Stone of Anointing where Jesus is said to have been anointed before burial. Several Christian sects share in the maintenance of the holy site. Apparently they oil the anointing stone daily. It was oily to my touch. My Catholic fiancée said I should have rubbed some of it on my ailing arms. Damn, I missed a possible cure.

 

The alleys leading up to The Church of the Holy Sepulcher have special significance as well. For my Catholic friends, this is the original place of the Stations of the Cross. This route includes the 14 stations through which Jesus passed carrying the wooden cross on which he was later crucified by the Romans.

If one continues 100 meters or so past the church, which is the holiest site in Christianity, one comes to the holiest site in all of Judaism. The Temple Mount and the Western Wall.  It was from here the world expanded into its present form and God gathered the dust used to create the first man, Adam. This is where Abraham brought his son to sacrifice and God stopped him.

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 If you go to the right hand side of the Western Wall, there is a ramp available that will take you on top of the hill. Stairs are also available. If the Israeli security services allow you to pass, this leads to the the Al-Aksa Mosque, which for Sunni Muslims is the third holiest site in Islam. They believe that Muhammad made a miraculous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem in 621a.d. At this “farthest” mosque he was lifted to heaven and returned to Earth to carry on his teaching.

 

Alleged problems regarding access to this Mosque was a source of violent unrest while I was there. For security reasons, the area was closed that day and I could only get a distant photo. I had much better access to the Jewish and Christian sites.

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Seeing these three sites are a “must do” when visiting Jerusalem. Several other sites are  worth visiting as well. I Liked the Israel Museum and the Tower of David. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum is a must see. I enjoyed shopping in the Machane Yehuda Market.13 (2)

I had a rather shocking personal experience upon returning to my hotel after a long day of visiting those sites. After having a light dinner at the YMCA Three Arches Hotel next door, I retired to my room to take a nice warm bath and call it a night. As I got in the bathtub, I notice the tub was rather narrow and quite deep. Definitely not made for Americans. When I finished my bath and began draining the water, I reached up to the high sides of the tub to pull myself out. To my shock, the disease had progressed to the point where I didn’t have the strength to lift myself out. I had visions of being stuck all night in the bathtub and having to wait for the maid to get me out in the morning. Finally after writhing every way I could, I was able to get myself on my stomach and pull my knees up and stand.

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Since I have a gallows sense of humor, I recall at one point during my struggle in the tub, I started laughing. The truth was, however, that my solo travel days were coming to an end. In fact I would’ve loved to have my fiancée traveling with me on this trip, but my ultimate destination was the US and their tourist visa restrictions were insurmountable. When I got back to the States, I began running the visa gauntlet and am happy to say we are now married and living in the US.

 

Aside from the bathtub incident, my time in Jerusalem was very enjoyable. Everyone should see this area to better understand what’s presented every day on the news. From Jerusalem I took a car back down the hill to Tel Aviv. My driver was an Israeli Arab. He was a nice guy said he was happy living in Israel.

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I spent two nights at the beach in Tel Aviv. I stayed at the Brown Beach House which is one block from the beach. My Jewish friend in Bangkok had warned me that Tel Aviv is just another city with not that much to see. Taking his advice, I just relaxed for two days on the beach. From there I flew to Cyprus, spent a few more days at the beach there and then it was back to the States by way of Vienna, Austria.

Luxor, Egypt, October 2015 – Valley of The Kings, Temples, Tombs and Hot Air Balloons.

Sometimes called the “greatest outdoor museum in the world”, Luxor is a pleasant town on the East Bank of the Nile 313 miles upriver from Cairo. It’s a good place just to walk around or to stroll along the Nile. Many of the main sights like the Karnak Temple and the Luxor Temple are within walking distance of the town center.

 

 

 

Across the river, on the West Bank of the Nile, are the famous tombs of the necropolis called the Valley of the Kings. It’s better to stay on the East Bank in Luxor and make day trips across the river to the West Bank. Accommodation is not a problem in Luxor these days. When I was there, the hotels were at 20 to 30% occupancy. I was able to get a first-class room overlooking the Nile for $30 a night. From my room, I could see hundreds of tour boats tied up along the river. A cruise from Cairo to Luxor used to be very popular. The political turmoil over the previous four years is mainly responsible for this decline in tourism. Some terrorist incidents have also slowed things down. A few days after I left Egypt, ISIS was able to get a bomb on a flight full of Russians flying out of the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. If you go to Luxor be sure to check the travel advisories first. The security situation could change at any time.

 

 

 

On my first day I toured the temples on the East Bank and took many photos. Luxor truly is a giant outdoor museum. I visited acres and acres of ancient ruins. In November, the temperature is ideal. Be careful what time of year you go. It can get blistering hot. During the day, I took a break and I had lunch at an exotic restaurant called McDonald’s. Interesting to see the Egyptian version. In addition to being halal, they have made a number of adaptations for Egyptian tastes.

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View from McDonald’s window

At night it was very quiet in the town with few other tourists visible. That same night I made my booking at the hotel for a hot air balloon ride and a tour of the Valley of the Kings. The next morning when I compared prices with other passengers on the hot air balloon, I found that prices varied widely depending on who you booked with. The range was from $60 to US$160 for a space on the same balloon. Funny, when you are working your way down your bucket list, cost becomes rather unimportant.

 

 

The hot air balloon company picked me up at the hotel at 4:30 AM.  Several other passengers were already on the bus. They took us to a boat moored along the Nile. After a few minutes the boat filled up with other passengers and we set out across the legendary river. Buses were waiting on the West Bank to take us to an area where several hot air balloons were being inflated. Each balloon could carry 16 to 20 passengers. After boarding, they instructed us on how to brace ourselves for a strong impact.

 

 

I didn’t know it at the time I made my booking, but safety had become a major issue with the Luxor hot air balloon flights. Three fatal accidents had occurred since 2009. The latest one was January 5, 2018. One South African man was killed and several were injured. The worst one however, was in 2013 when 19 passengers were killed.

.http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3113771/What-REALLY-happened-doomed-hot-air-balloon-flight-killed-19-passengers-dream-day-turned-carnage.html

 

 

Balloon Pilot

I doubt that knowing these statistics would’ve changed my mind about booking my flight. “Stuff” happens when you travel in Third World countries. A number of years ago a teacher friend of mine died in a bus crash in the Yucatán Peninsula. She was a very cautious type who hadn’t traveled much. She asked me if I thought it was safe for her and her friend to travel in Mexico. In those days I thought it was safe. I had driven most of the roads of Mexico myself. Today, I would say no. One can never be sure when the end is coming. You get the best information you can and you make the best decision you can. I call it being a reasonable adventurer.

 

 

 

The hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings was well worth the risk. As the sun came up, we could see the Nile snaking through the valley. A dozen other balloons were visible. We passed over several smaller temples. The pilot was able to get the balloon to drop down very near the ruins and then rise back up. The actual Valley of the Kings is a smaller valley, more like a canyon, tucked back in the mountains. As we moved farther north up the valley, we passed the large Temple of Hatshepsut, or the Temple of Queen “hot chicken soup” as one of the tour guides jokingly called it. The infamous Queen ruled Egypt for about 20 years starting in 1458 BC.

 

 

After about 45 minutes of flying, our pilot contacted his ground crew and arranged a rendezvous. The landing was rather smooth. Transport was ready to take us back to the launch area where I had arranged for a car, driver and guide to give me a closer look at the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and to look at some of the temples on the west side of the river. Many tombs are available for inspection. You can walk down inside and study the hieroglyphics painted on most of the walls.

Luxor Ballon Landing Crew

Balloon Landing Crew

Dozens of tombs have been found in this valley. Interestingly, they were still digging when I was there. Many times false entries and other techniques have been used to try to hide the treasures. No doubt, digging will go on for decades more. All the tombs I visited were quite empty. Aside from the hieroglyphics, there was not much to see inside a tomb. I suppose all the good stuff has long since been taken to museums in Cairo and elsewhere.

After my tour of the tombs, my tour guide took to me to see some of the temples and monuments on that side of the river. Most memorable, of course, was the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut which we had seen from the air. The tour guide jokingly had me cross my arms over my chest so I was posed like a mummy. This temple also was the site of the terrorist attack that killed 62 people in 1997. This was the event that had kept me from seeing Egypt 20 years earlier.

 

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After the full day of touring on the West Bank, we headed back to my hotel and I spent an enjoyable evening in Luxor and prepared for my trip back to Cairo and on to Amman Jordan the next day.  I could now check off bucket list item number two.

 

 

Cairo, Egypt, October 2015: Bucket List Item Number One

When the kind Thai neurologist at Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok gave me the depressing diagnosis, her last piece of advice was that if there was anything I wanted to do…I should do it soon. With that advice firmly in mind, I thought about the places in the world I really wanted to visit but had never managed to get there. Since I had already traveled to more than 100 countries, the list was getting rather short. Also, as one gets older I think the list shortens.

Having said that, six destinations came immediately to mind:

  1. Cairo
  2. Luxor, Egypt.
  3. Israel, Jerusalem in particular
  4. Cape Town, South Africa
  5. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
  6. Cuba.

While I had been all over Asia, Europe and the Americas,  I had only been to a couple of countries in Africa. I felt I needed to see more of the continent in general, but I was very interested in Ethiopia and South Africa for a number of reasons. But first on the list were Egypt and the Holy Lands.

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Actually, I was booked to go to Cairo 18 years earlier, but the now defunct airline, TWA, called me when I was in Spain and told me that a day earlier, Nov 18, 1997, at least 70 people, including 60 foreigners were killed by terrorists outside the 3400-year-old Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor. They encouraged me to go elsewhere. They suggested Mallorca instead. I enjoyed it the first few days but was bored the rest of the week. I learned over the years I can’t just sit on a beach and bake. I need to move around and see as much as I can.

After taking time to mentally process the diagnosis and make plans for treatment back in the US, I started planning the trip. Living near Bangkok made it easy as it’s a major hub for flights to the Middle East and Europe. I easily booked a business class ticket on Qatar Airways from Bangkok to Cairo for about $1000. No more economy class for this guy.  I was able to sleep for several hours on the Bangkok-Doha leg. Although I don’t drink much anymore, I enjoyed the business class lounge aboard the gigantic, two-story Airbus A380. After the short Doha stopover, they put me in a first-class seat to Cairo.

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Business Class Lounge Aboard Qatar Airways A380

Upon arrival at Cairo, I was surprised to see that my hotel had their representative meet me at the gate. Usually hotel representatives wait outside somewhere carrying a sign with your name on it. In this case, the representative of Le Meridian Hotel accompanied me through the entire immigration and customs process. Again, traveling first class certainly has its advantages. I thought of the countless hours spent in immigration lines in the past. Life is not fair.

Le Meridian Hotel is located in the ancient Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. The modern city is built on ruins that date back more than 3000 years. Indeed, shortly after my visit, two statues of ancient pharaohs were uncovered in the mud not far from my hotel. (See link below)

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/03/ancient-pharaoh-statues-uncovered-cairo-mud-pit-170310093023180.html

There were two main things I wanted to see in Cairo. First, the Pyramids at Giza and second the National Museum at Tahrir Square. The hotel was able to book me a car and driver and an English-speaking guide. I was surprised to see how close the pyramids were to the city. In fact they are only 8 miles southwest of the center of Cairo. It was fascinating to drive through the streets of the largest city in Africa. The whole city seem to be cast in sandy shades of beige and tan. Interesting to see many churches as well as mosques in Cairo.

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Nile River

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After seeing the pyramids and the Sphinx and taking many photos, my guide asked me if I wanted to go inside one of the pyramids. She said the only problem was that there’s really nothing to see in there now and that you have to bend over and walk quite a long distance. For sure, there was a time I would’ve done it. 20 years ago I would’ve been all over those pyramids, but on that I day passed. I went back to the hotel took a nap and spent a pleasant evening around Heliopolis. Some things have to be done when you’re younger.

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My Guide

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Entrance to Pyramid

The next day we went to Tahrir Square and the National Museum. Tahrir means liberation. The world witnessed two very recent examples of that liberation. First, the longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was deposed in 2011 when more than 1 million people gathered in the square. With the support of the Obama administration, The Muslim Brotherhood, a minority party, managed to get control of the government. Immediately they tried to change the secular government into a strict Muslim autocracy. The result was disastrous especially for the non-Muslim minorities. They drove the economy into the ground. In 2013, the square filled up again with demonstrators. Some estimated that 3 million demonstrators showed up on that day if you count the side streets.

 

Based on this overwhelming unpopularity of the new government, General al Sisi took control and formed a government. He is now in his second term of office and has announced that he will not run for reelection although he would probably win. Security has improved considerably and the economy has started to grow again. My tour guide was a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. She told me that she liked the al Sisi government and that things were getting better. As terrible as they were, the Muslim Brotherhood are still considered the duly elected government of Egypt. Most European and Middle Eastern governments have been slow to recognize the new government. All of the unrest has damaged Egypt’s tourism industry.

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On my second day we drove back through the Cairo traffic. The National Museum of Egypt is located on Tahrir Square. A statue of Howard Carter is standing in the front courtyard. Carter was the Englishman who discovered the Tomb of King Tutankhamen, the boy king. More than 5000 artifacts dating back nearly 4000 years were found. Many are on display in the museum. Carter took many items back to England. Sadly, some were sold and given away to people around the world. If you can’t make it to Cairo, try to see the British Museum in London. It’s the next best thing to the museum.

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The fantastic gold mask of King Tutankhamen is on display in the National Museum. It was under repair for several months. Some attendant had handled the piece wrong when they were moving and broke off his beard. It had to undergo a delicate glue job. Another piece that caught my eye was the statue of Anubis. Depicted as a black canine–like creature, his job was to guard the dead. A large statue of him stood in the middle of the museum. I smiled because my son-in-law had named his whippet after this ancient Egyptian deity. Well, he was an expensive dog so I suppose he deserved such a lofty name.

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After a full morning at the National Museum, the guide insisted that we stop at a papyrus factory. They demonstrated how the ancient Egyptians made papyrus. They then tried to sell me on a sign with my name in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Enough for one day. Time to prepare for my Egypt Airlines flight to Luxor.