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.

 

 

Cook Islands 1986: My Gauguin Moment in a Poor Man’s Tahiti

I found an interesting ticket on Air New Zealand. The routing was  LAX, Papeete, Tahiti, Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, Fiji and finally Auckland, New Zealand. All of that for a few hundred dollars. I couldn’t resist. The rules allowed you to stay as long as you liked at each destination. The only caveat was that the flights were a only a couple of times a week. So once you got there you may have to wait a while for the next flight even if you were tired of the place. In those days, I traveled with one carry-on bag that went under the seat. The exact dimensions were 9″ x 22″ x 14″. I had it down to a science. I packed exactly the right number of long pants, short pants, shirts and underwear. Including the toiletries, the whole thing did not exceed 7 kg in weight. No waiting for baggage. I learned my lesson in El Salvador when my friend’s checked bag was stolen. But that’s another story.

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Photo taken at the Gauguin Museum, 1976

Tahiti was wonderful. To begin with, I love French culture. Combine that with the gorgeous Polynesian culture and you have an unbeatable combination. The only problem was that I was still a budget traveler in those days. Tahiti would blow a giant hole in your budget if you stayed there long enough. The reason is that Tahiti is a semi autonomous territory of France. Tahitians are French citizens. In those days, their currency was tied to the French Franc. Unfortunately, nearly everything that wasn’t made on the island was imported from France which was halfway around the world. The result was some eye-popping prices. I remember paying $15 for sandwich at a small snack bar. That was 30 years ago. While I loved the French cuisine and the wine in the restaurants, I winced each time they brought me the check. Soon I would be moving on to a different part of Polynesia, the Cook Islands, which my guidebooks told me was much cheaper. Perhaps Marlon Brando could afford a long stay in Tahiti but a college teacher like me could not.

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Papeete Marina

Before leaving Tahiti, however, there were two things I wanted to do. First, I had to see the Gauguin Museum which was a short ride down the coast. Second, I wanted to see another island besides the main island of Tahiti. I chose Moorea which was the most accessible. I would rather have gone to Bora-Bora but time and money did not permit it. The trip to Moorea was delightful and I met a nice Frenchwoman who owned the small resort where I stayed a couple of nights.

The Paul Gauguin Museum chronicled Gauguin’s 10 years he spent on Tahiti and the nearby Marquesas Islands. He died on the Marquesas Islands in 1902, in fact. His paintings weren’t a success until after he died. The museum contains many of his documents, photos, sketches and block prints. I felt a bit of a disappointment to find there are very few original paintings. Since his oil paintings now sell for millions of dollars, I suppose it would be very expensive to keep any of them there. I understand now the museum has gone down quite a bit and is currently closed. I enjoyed my visit along with the ride down the spectacular coastline.

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Ferry to Moorea

After Tahiti and Moorea, it was time to leave the expensive French-speaking part of Polynesia and move 700 miles to the southwest to the Cook Islands, an English speaking region. Named for Capt. James Cook who first visited in 1773, the Cook Islands is made up of 15 small atolls and islands scattered over 770,000 mi.². My Air New Zealand flight sat down on the main island of Rarotonga. The capital city, Avarua is on the north end of the island.

I booked a small beach bungalow near the airport. Although the airport was only a few miles from Avarua, the airport shuttle took me the entire circumference of the island all the way back around to my bungalow. Although it took nearly an hour, it was daytime so I got a great view of the whole island.

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Hugh Baker’s bungalow

I booked my bungalow with Hugh Baker and his mother, Dolly. I was a bit surprised when I saw that the bungalow appeared to be just a tin shack. Inside, however, it was well fitted out and was a short walk to the beach. Hugh even supplied me with a bicycle to ride the 2 miles into town. As I examined the bicycle, one thing stood out. It was nearly 100% made of plastic. It was engineered to survive the intense humidity, I suppose. I spent the next few days swimming and riding my bicycle and getting to know Rarotonga. The people were extremely friendly and welcoming. Some say the place is like Hawaii 80 years ago.

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My Plastic Bicycle

Unlike Hawaii, Cook Islands is a self-governing island state in free association with New Zealand. The Kiwis provide for their defense and help finance their debt. Many of the professionals working on the island are from New Zealand. My landlord, Hugh Baker, worked at the airport and rented out bungalows for extra money. With only 14,000 native Cook Islanders left living in the islands, there are now more Cook Islanders living abroad than at home. In recent years, the islands have become a well-known tax haven and offshore banking center. While I was there, everything was unbelievably cheap. The kiwi dollar was about $.55 to the US dollar. A large bottle of delicious Steinlager beer only cost one kiwi dollar.

 

On one of my afternoon bike rides, I discovered the Banana Court Bar on the main highway. Although quiet in the daytime, the bartender told me to come back on a weeknight, Wednesday was ladies night and that would be best. They had a local band and the place filled up. I made a mental note to do that before I left the island. But first, I wanted to do as I had done in Tahiti and see an additional island. I chose Aitutaki because it was an atoll. Raratonga was formed by a volcano. An atoll is formed by coral and is usually ring-shaped with a large lagoon in the center.

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Cook Islands Air Flight

This was the case with Aitutaki. Cook Island Air had regular flights there. The view from the was spectacular. I enjoyed a relaxing two or three days. I rented a motorbike and explored the atoll. The place was very quiet and idyllic. The only other tourists on my part of the island were a couple of Australian families. After two days of it, I was raring to get back to Rarotonga.

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Aitutaki Atoll View

When I arrived back at my beach shack I realized two things. First, I only had two more nights on the island and soon I would have to move on to Fiji. My Air New Zealand ticket was booked and would be difficult to change. Second, I remembered it was Wednesday. This was the night for the Banana Court Bar. I needed to plan ahead. I didn’t want to be riding the plastic bicycle in the center at night. So when evening rolled around, I walked nearly a mile to the general store and called a taxi to take me into town.

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When I arrived at the Banana Court Bar, I discovered the guys were right. The place was full. The music seemed to be a mix of American music and some local tunes. As I enjoyed my Steinlager and looked across the crowd, I noticed many of the women had flowers in their hair and wore tropical style dresses. Some of them looked as if they had been plucked from a Gauguin painting. I kept exchanging eye contact with one of the pretty young women. I can’t remember if I ask her to dance or she asked me. Probably she asked me because I tend to be shy and not very aggressive in bars.

No matter. We enjoyed three or four Western-style dances and I learned that her name was Justine. She had a charming slight New Zealand accent. I thought to myself, what a pretty name and what a lovely, exotic young lady. At that point the music changed and she asked me if I wanted to dance a local dance called the Ura. Why not? She had me stand in a semi-crouching position with my feet firmly planted on the floor while keeping my upper body steady. I was then to move my knees to the rhythm of the music. Facing me with her feet between mine, She stood above me, raised her arms and swayed and undulated to the music. OMG, what an incredibly sensual experience! This was not the dancing the Mormons had taught me in Utah many years ago. I was in heaven. I was smitten.

After a few more dances, her girlfriend showed up and said her group was leaving. When Justine hesitated a bit, the friend took her hand and began pulling her toward the door where her other friends were waiting.  Justine paused, smiled and looked back at me and said,” I work at the library”. Yes! I got the distinct impression she wanted to see me again. Why else did she tell me that? Was I being presumptuous? Cross cultural nonverbal communication is sometimes hard to read. Maybe she was just being kind to the forty-something American tourist. Well, we’ll find out. Tomorrow I’ll ride my bike into town and visit the library and say hello and see what develops. That night, as I fell asleep, I remembered dancing Ura and started having fantasies about dropping out of the American rat race and living the Gauguin lifestyle on the beaches of the Cook Islands.

Morning came and the rain started. It wasn’t just light tropical rain like we experienced a few days earlier. This was rain of biblical proportions. In my beach shack, I didn’t have a TV or radio. Probably this was a typhoon. There was no way I could ride that plastic bicycle into town. I doubt if I could even walk it when it was raining 70 miles an hour sideways. I had no other choice but to wait. And wait I did…the entire day. That night the deluge subsided a bit. The next morning I was able to walk to the general store. Annoyed, frustrated and wet, I booked my airport taxi for the confirmed flight to Fiji which was later that day. The tropical rains had washed away my Gauguin fantasy. I told myself I would return there soon. I never did. Life happened.

 

The Dani of Baliem Valley: The Stone Age Comes to the 21st Century

By far in my 50 years of travel the most unusual, surreal place I ever visited was the Baliem Valley in West Papua, the easternmost province of Indonesia. Because of its isolation, the Baliem Valley wasn’t discovered until 1938. Explorer Richard Archbold discovered it by accident while flying a seaplane over the region. He saw perfectly manicured fields and knew there must be people there. Because today it is still isolated and unreachable by roads, the Dani people and their neighbors the Yali and the Lani, still show strong evidence of the stone age culture they were living at the time of Archbold’s arrival.pict0008-copy.jpg

All the guidebooks I read said that I needed to speak basic Indonesian in order to survive in the Baliem Valley. I bought some Indonesian language tapes and played them almost constantly for several months as I traveled to and from my teaching job at the college. My primitive Bahasa Indonesia skills were put to a test when I arrived Jayapura, the regional capital. In order to reach the Baliem Valley, one needs to fly over a 10,000 foot mountain range and drop down into the main town of Wamena. The local airline, Merpati, would not let anyone board the flight without a surat jalan, a police travel document. Since they were annexed to Indonesia four decades earlier, there has been an ongoing insurrection in the Papua region. It seems the Papuans have very little in common with their government in Jakarta. Indeed, not long after I visited there, the region was shut down to tourism for several years. Only after they were given greater autonomy was it safe to travel there again. Even today, US government employees are not allowed to visit there.

After a hilarious encounter in primitive Indonesian with a police officer in Jayapura while he pounded out my surat jalan on a manual typewriter, I was ready for the spectacular flight over the mountains. And spectacular it was. I saw the silver river bisecting the Valley and the perfectly manicured fields of the Garden of Eden that Archbold discovered in 1938. Our flight made a preliminary pass over the runway at the Wamena airport. This was to clear all the people and animals off the runway. Once I landed and was waiting for my baggage to be offloaded in the small dilapidated terminal, I realized I was indeed in a surreal world. Standing next to me was a man nonchalantly wearing absolutely nothing except a gourd on his penis. About half the men and boys I saw during my stay were wearing the koteka. The farther you got from the town of Wamena, the more you saw of the gourds. It seemed that village chiefs would wear a longer one. Also I understand that each man had a selection of gourds. He would wear a short curved one when working and a longer one on ceremonial occasions.

The women, on the other hand, were bare breasted especially when one got out of town. Invariably, however, they would cover their backs with a woven bag called a noken. The noken was used to carry many things like produce, pigs and children. Similar to some other cultures, breasts were not considered erotic. The woman’s back was, however. No self respecting Dani woman would leave her back exposed. Two other unusual customs stood out regarding the women. When a woman lost her baby, she would completely cover herself with yellow clay. Even more startling, when a woman lost a family member, she would cut off the end of one of her fingers. Some women I saw had most of their fingers missing. They were proud to show me their mutilated hands. I understand this latter custom has now been banned.

Sweet potatoes were the staple crop and pigs were the main medium of exchange. The Dani were polygamist. Each man had four or five wives working the fields for him. His job was to provide security for the family. The wives had to be purchased using pigs. According to my Dani guide, Joseph, a wife from the north end of the valley cost nine pigs but a wife from the south end of the valley only cost seven pigs. According to one writer, pigs are so valuable women have been known to suckle the piglets so that they can survive. The writer said he saw a baby nursing one breast and a pig on the other. I can’t confirm that.

I found the Dani people to be very warm and friendly throughout my entire time there. A few words of Indonesian and we were instant friends. I hope modern civilization hasn’t changed them too much.If you want to visit a place that is truly different, I highly recommend the Baliem Valley. If you go, let me know how you like it.

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